The sages (Salvia spp.) are a large plant family with members found worldwide in habitats as varied as deserts, mountains, temperate zones, and tropics. The genus contains around 900 species of annual, perennial, or biennial herbs, shrubs, and subshrubs. All sages belong to the Deadnettle Family (Lamiaceae, formerly Labiatae), as do so many of our most useful herbs.
As you might expect with a genus possessing a worldwide distribution, sages can differ markedly in leaf-shape, color, texture, flower color, and hardiness. Depending on the species, sage leaves can be pebbled or smooth, notch-edged or straight-edged, silver, grey-green, green, dark green, burgundy, bicolored, or tricolored. In some species the leaves are “pinnatisect,” that is, take the shape of feathers; in others, simple narrow ovals; in others they are “lyrate” (lyre-shaped, that is, composed of one main leaf flanked by two smaller leaves). In many species the leaves attach to their square branches by little stems (petioles); in others, they spring directly from the stems.
The flowers, typical of flowers belonging to members of the Deadnettle Family, are two-lipped, the lower lip usually the more prominent. They are protected by bracts and range in color from white, lavender, true blue, and violet to scarlet, burgundy, cream to pale yellow, and bicolors (depending on the species and cultivar).
Not everything called sage is a Salvia. The common name “sage” is frequently applied to sagebrush species belonging to the genus Artemisia in the Aster Family (Asteraceae, formerly Compositae).
What we call sage is known around the world as:
- DANISH: salvie
- DUTCH: salie
- ESPERANTO: salvio
- FINNISH: ryytisalvia
- FRENCH: sauge
- GERMAN: Salbei
- NORWEGIAN: salvier
- POLISH: szałwia
- SWEDISH: salvior
- TURKISH: ada çayı (sometimes transliterated into English as “adagay”).
SAGES IN HISTORY & FOLKLORE
“Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?” — Old English proverb
The name “sage” comes from the Latin verb salveo, meaning “to heal.” This testifies to common sage’s ancient reputation as a healer and life-prolonger. The Greek physician Dioskorides recommended sage for kidney troubles, ulcers, rheumatism, tuberculosis (!), coughs, and sore throats. The Roman writer Pliny recommended sage for snake bites. In his book Hortulus (i.e., The Little Garden), ninth century Anglo-Saxon herbalist Walafrid Strabo wrote of common sage (Salvia officinalis), “Amongst my herbs, sage holds the place of honour; of good scent it is and full of virtue for many ills.” The 12th century Macer’s Herbal says of sage, “Why should a man die of sickness when he can have sage in his garden?”
Sage is mentioned by Geoffrey Chaucer, the 14th century author of The Canterbury Tales. In his “Knight’s Tale”, describing the “pharmacies of herbs” enlisted to aid the wounded and dying after a fierce battle, he names only one specifically, which indicates the esteem in which the people of the time held it: the herb “save,” his word for sage. He writes, “save/ They dranken, for they would their lives have.”
In the 14th century herbal, Agnus Castus, it is written of sage, “Salgia is an herb that men call sage. The virtue of this herb is that however a man uses it, in eating or drinking or in powder[s], it is good for the palsy. Also it is good to heal a man of the toothache. Also if a man has a raw wound that bleeds much, take the powder of it and lay [it] to the wound … Also if a man will have black hair take the juice of this herb and wash your hair well in the hot sun with it.”
Thomas Coghan, in The Haven of Health (1584) wrote: “Of all garden herbs, none is of greater virtue than sage … such is the virtue of sage that if it were possible, it would make a man immortal.” He adds, “Now because it … comforts the sinews and brain, it must necessarily be good for students, who are commonly encumbered with diseases of the head. It may be used as food in the springtime with bread and butter, especially in May. I myself have known a man of 80 years or more who, for his breakfast in summer, used to eat 6 or 7 sage leaves minced small with a little Salt, and in winter as many blades of unset leeks, drinking always a draft of good ale after it, by which means he preserves himself for a long time in a healthful state.” Moreover, he goes on, “Sage is used in another way: put in a tightly lidded drink overnight, or two or three hours before we drink it … it is good against infection, especially if rue is added to it.”
English herbalist Nicholas Culpeper wrote, “Sage is of excellent use to help the memory, warming and quickening the senses.” He even claimed that sage was of value against the bubonic plague or Black Death. Sage ale was a famous English drink. Writes John Gerard in his Herball (1597), “No man needs to doubt the wholesomeness of sage ale … brewed … with sage, scabious [Scabiosa spp.], betony [Stachys betonica], spikenard [probably spike lavender, Lavandula latifolia], squinanth [probably squinancy wort, Asperula cynanchia, a relative of sweet woodruff], and fennel [Foeniculum vulgare] seeds.”
In The Englishmans Doctor (1607), Sir John Harington lauded sage’s honor. “But who can write thy worth, O sovereign sage,” he wrote. “Some ask how Man can die where thou dost grow … In Latin Salvia takes the name of safety; in English Sage is rather wise than crafty. Sith [since], then, the name betokens wise and saving, we count it nature’s friend and worth the having.” John Parkinson (Theatrum Botanicum, 1640) recommended boiling sage, rosemary, honeysuckle, and plantain (Plantago major) in water and using the resulting liquid as a gargle for canker sores, sore mouths, and sore throats.
Sage was also held, particularly in France, to be a grief-alleviator; perhaps for this reason, or because sage (Salvia) was associated with Christian salvation, in certain parts of England sage was commonly planted in graveyards. 17th century diarist Samuel Pepys records, “Between Gosport and Southampton we observed a little churchyard where it was customary to sow all the graves with Sage.” To keep hungry toads from chomping on young sage plants, rue (Ruta graveolens) — thought to be a toad-repeller — was frequently planted next to them.
In fact, Salvia officinalis, common garden sage, is loaded with a potent, fragrant essential oil containing a wide variety of chemically active constituents, including borneol, cineole, and thujone. The leaves contain caffeic acid, chlorogenic acid, cornsole and cornsolic acid, estrogenic substances, flavones and flavonoid glycosides, fumaric acid, niacin, nicotinamide, oleic acid, ursolic acid, and ursonic acid.
Perhaps for these reasons, fresh sage leaves rubbed on the teeth are said to clean and whiten them and strengthen the gums, and the tea is recommended as a mouthwash. Sage tea is also recommended to be drunk for colds (add some lemon juice and chopped lemon rind when the leaves are steeping) and for upset stomach due to overconsumption of rich or fatty foods. Strong sage leaf tea applied to the scalp is said to darken the hair and make it grow more vigorously. Herbalist Jeanne Rose recommends sage for athlete’s foot, cellulite, with borax for falling hair, to make hair shiny, to alleviate itchy skin, to stimulate circulation in the hands and legs and muscles, as a relaxant addition to baths, and as a rub for stretch marks both before and after pregnancy. Strong sage tea and olive oil are recommended by Roy Genders in Cosmetics From the Earth as ” an effective [hair] dressing which imparts a gloss to the hair.”
In a double blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial, sage was found to be effective in the management of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease; and modern studies of the plant have suggested possible uses as an anhidrotic, antibiotic, antifungal,
astringent, antispasmodic, estrogenic, hypoglycemic, and tonic. (Caution is indicated when using sage in conjunction with central nervous system stimulants or depressants.)
Other sage species have a history of medicinal and cultural uses, too. Greek sage (Salvia fruticosa) has been long valued in Greece for its medicinal and culinary uses; a picture of it dating back to about 1400 BCE appears on a Minoan fresco at Knossos, Crete. It is said to have a long history of use in Muslim childbirth, wedding, and funeral rituals; it is also burned as incense. According to Plants For A Future (pfaf.org), 50-95% of the dried sage sold in North America comes not from Salvia officinalis but from Salvia fruticosa.
Bee sage, sacred sage, or white sage (Salvia apiana) is valued by several Native American Indian tribes, who consider the plant to be sacred and use it to make smudge sticks, leaf bundles the smoke from which is employed as purifying incense. The plant has also been used for food, cosmetics, and medicine. The seeds have been ground into flour for porridge and used whole as a granular eye-cleanser. The leaves have been used in cooking, shampoos, hair dyes, and hair straighteners. White sage leaf tea has been found to reduce mucus buildup in sinuses, throat, and lungs; to ease the pain of sore throats; as a stomach tonic; and as an aid in suppressing heavy menstruation (since the action of the herb can decrease lactation, nursing mothers are advised against using it).
Salvia hispanica (Chia, see below) was cultivated by the pre-Columbian Aztecs, who valued it so highly the Aztecs often paid their tributes and taxes in the seeds of the plant. The name “chia” is derived from the Nahuatl word chian, meaning “oily;” the fat-rich seeds are still used in México and Guatemala, whole in cooking and drinks and ground as flour. The Mexican state of Chiapas takes its name from a Nahuatl word meaning “chia water or river,” and Jesuit missionaries listed as the Aztecs’ four most important food crops (in order of importance from most to least) maize, beans, chia, and amaranth. Chia is now grown commercially in Argentina, Australia (in 2008 the world’s largest producer), Bolivia, Ecuador, Guatemala and México.
Clary sage (Salvia sclarea) has been used for hundreds of years in its native Europe for afflictions of the eyes, hence its common names of clary (=”clear eye”), bright eyes, and, in Italy, oculus Christi (eye of Christ). In Cosmetics From the Earth, Roy Genders recommends applying to the eyes water distilled from clary sage leaves and flower. “Used warm to bathe the eyes,” he writes, “will give them a sparkle … and soothe away soreness.” He also recommends distilled clary sage water as a “soothing toilet water for fair skins.” He adds that steeping half an ounce of clary sage seed in a little water for 24 hours will yield a mucilage (similar, we note, to that produced by moistening basil seeds). This mucilage, Gender says, “will remove the most stubborn intrusion from the eye.” He also recommends it for blackheads.
VARIETIES OF COMMON SAGE
Common Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis), also known as Kitchen Sage, True Sage, Culinary Sage, and Dalmatian Sage, is a Mediterranean perennial now cultivated all over the world. It was once considered the most commercially important herb grown in the United States.
In the wild, S. officinalis gets about 2 feet tall and wide, with lavender flowers (occasionally white, pink, or purple) appearing in late spring or summer. The oblong leaves can grow up to 2.5″ long x 1″ wide; they are grey-green, somewhat wrinkled on their upper sides, softly hairy on their undersides, which makes them appear nearly white. S. officinalis is hardy from Zones 5-9.
Here are some of the most useful garden sage cultivars. Unless otherwise noted, all are hardy from Zones 5-9 and bear lavender to blue flowers from July to August.
S. officinalis ‘Albiflora’ (White-Flowered Garden Sage): Syn. S. o. ‘Alba’? To 2′ tall. White flowers.
S. officinalis ‘Berggarten’ (Broadleaf Sage): 16″ tall x 2′ wide. A spreading, compact plant with very large, rounded, deliciously fragrant leaves. Purple blossoms are produced very infrequently in June and July. (“Berggarten” means “mountain garden” in German.) A variegated form also exists (S. o. ‘Variegated Berggarten’). Space both types 20-24″ apart.
S. officinalis ‘Compacta’ (Compact or Dwarf Garden Sage): Syn. S. o. ‘Nana’? 8″-1′ tall x 18″ wide. Small, flavorful leaves. Space 15-20″ apart.
S. officinalis ‘Crispa’: Leaves variegated and crinkled.
S. officinalis ‘Extrakta’: To 2′ tall. Robust, uniform, high-yielding plants bear leaves containing 1.5-2% of a very high quality essential oil. Zones 4-8.
S. officinalis ‘Holt’s Mammoth’: Culinary variety prized for its 4-5″ long leaves.
S. officinalis ‘Icterina’ (Variegated Golden Sage): 18″ tall x 2′ wide. Light green leaves edged in gold; seldom flowers. Good culinary variety. More tender to frost than standard sage; hardy from Zones 8-10.
S. officinalis ‘Jefferson’: To 2′ tall. Reddish-pink flowers July-August.
S. officinalis ‘Kew Gold’: Lovely golden yellow leaves.
S. officinalis ‘Latifolia’ (Narrow-Leaved Garden Sage): Leaves up to twice as long as they are wide.
S. officinalis ‘Milleri’: Leaves red, blotched.
S. officinalis ‘Purpurascens’ (Purple Sage; Red Sage; Purple-Leaved Garden Sage): Reddish-purple leaves. To 10″ tall. Non-flowering.
S. officinalis ‘Rosea’ (Pink-Flowered Garden Sage): To 2′ tall. Pink flowers.
S. officinalis ‘Rubriflora’ (Red-Flowered Garden Sage): Red flowers; leaves very narrow, up to 4 times longer than they are wide.
S. officinalis ‘Salicifolia’ (Willow-Leaved Garden Sage): Leaves up to 7 times longer than they are wide!
S. officinalis ‘Tricolor’: 8-18″ tall x 2′ wide. Beautiful green, white, and purple leaves, exquisitely ornamental. Mauve-blue flowers. Slightly less hardy than common garden sage, to Zone 6 with protection.
S. officinalis ‘Variegated Woodcote’: To 2′ tall. Green leaves marked with a naarrow dark sliver at the center. Reddish-pink flowers.
GROWING GARDEN SAGE
Sages generally prefer rich, alkaline, well-drained soils in full sun protected from cold winter winds, but can adapt to clay soils if compost is dug into them and they are kept from waterlogging (poor drainage can result in root-rot). In New Mexico climates, garden sage (Salvia officinalis) should be given some afternoon protection.
Sage flowers can be very attractive to hummingbirds and hawk moths, and are extremely attractive to bees. Rosemary Hemphill quotes an 18th century physician, Sir John Hill: “Just when the flowers of sage begin to open there is in their cups a fragrant resin … highly flavoured, balmy, delicate and to the taste one of the most delicious cordials that can be thought, warm and aromatic. I no longer doubted anything that had been said of sage; the smell, the taste, the flavour here promised all.”
Some authorities recommend pruning common sage in late spring, after the new leaves have begun to unfurl; others, right after flowering. Many writers recommend replacing bushes after the third or fourth year, when they become woody or leggy. Many sages will root when their stems are pegged down into the soil around the plants.
Mary Wellman reports that in Turkey following World War II, “sage [was] gathered wild on the hillsides … by the children, and tossed into white washed pits to dry in the hot sun.” We recommend harvesting sage for drying just as the flowers open, tying stems together in a paper bag, and hanging the bag upside down in a cool, dark place. (The bag catches any leaves that, in drying, fall off their stalks.)
COOKING WITH SAGE
Garden sage lends its smoky, earthy, stimulating flavor and aroma to a wide range of dishes. Says Rosemary Hemphill in Herbs For All Seasons: “In cooking, sage helps to counteract the richness in foods such as pork, goose, duck and oily fish; it also combines well with dairy foods and with bean and pea soups.” Try sage with:
- beans, dried peas, and lentils;
- cheeses (if you make your own cheese, sage and garlic make a nice addition; sage and chives are tasty baked into cheese biscuits or mixed with cheese spreads);
- cornbread and polentas;
- eggs and omelets (try sage and chives together in a ham- or bacon-filled omelet);
- meats such as bacon, ham, liver, pork, rabbit, and sausages;
- poultry such as duck, goose, grouse, pigeon and turkey;
- seafood such as crab; tempeh; and
- vegetables such as eggplants, peas, and tomatoes.
Sage fritters, made by dipping sage leaves into batter and frying them quickly in butter or olive oil, can be a delicious accompaniment to roasts. Sage flowers make a pleasant addition to salads, and sage and thyme make good additions to onion dishes. Sage sandwiches, made of bread and butter lined with sage leaves, are an old Mediterranean health food snack. And sage tea is said to have been so appreciated by the Chinese when they were first introduced to it that they exchanged with the Dutch traders three times the amount of their choicest tea varieties for sage.
When using sage in cooking, start with only a small amount. In Magic In Herbs, Léonie de Sounin comments, “Sage … should be used most carefully because its strong aromatic and spicy qualities bear down on foods and it is difficult to subdue it … parsley … will mellow the character of sage somewhat if mixed generously with it.”
Greek sage flowers, by the way, make a honey that was once said to be the finest in the world.
NORTH AMERICAN SAGE SPECIES
S. apiana (Bee Sage, Sacred Sage, White Sage): From 3-9′ tall. Native to northwestern México and southwestern U.S.A., with furry stems; furry, silver, narrow to oblong, 2-4″ long, indented or notched leaves; and very long (to 4.5′), much-branched erect wands tipped with clusters of .28″-long white tubular blossoms flecked with lavender. A wonderful honey plant for bees, used in commercial apiaries, and a true xeric plant, requiring dry, well-drained soil, full sun, and scant water. Pollinated by hawk moths, bumblebees, and moths; also attracts hummingbirds. See also SAGE IN HISTORY & FOLKLORE above. Zones 8-11.
S. arizonica (Arizona Sage): 18-24″ tall x 2′+ wide. A sage for part shade! Loose, spreading, trailing. mint-scented, chartreuse mounds, topped in June and July and again in September with small blue to purple blossoms. Native to Arizona, Texas, and northern México. Zones 7-10.
S. azurea (Azure Sage): 3-4.5′ tall x 2-3′ wide. One of the most beautiful blue-flowered sages, fully hardy as well as drought and heat tolerant. Upright stems are clothed with narrow, sometimes serrated, smooth to downy grey-green leaves; the absolutely true blue blossoms, about 1/4-1/2″ long, appear in late summer and early fall. Native to the Southeastern U.S. Zones 4-9.
- S.azurea ssp. pitcheri var. grandiflora (Pitcher Sage): Downy leaves; dense flower-spikes carry blossoms to .48″ long with densely furry calyxes. Often listed simply as Salvia pitcheri. Native to Southern U.S. ‘Nekan’ is a particularly floriferous cultivar.
S. brandegei (Santa Rosa Island Sage): To 3′ tall. Highly drought-tolerant, furry-stemmed shrub from California’s Channel Islands, with notched, narrow, blunt, dark green, pebbled, spicy-scented leaves, covered on their undersides with white felt; furry oval bracts; and small lavender blossoms, furry within, borne in spring to early summer. Hummingbird magnet. Zones 8-11. ‘Pacific Blue’ is a fast-growing cultivar with multiple, arched stems; it bears blue blossoms tinged with lavender.
S. cacaliifolia (Guatemalan Blue Vine Sage; sometimes listed as S. cacalaefolia): 2-3′ tall x 3-4′ wide. Erect perennial herb from the mountans of southern México, Honduras and Guatemala up to 8000′ elevation. The plants are more or less covered with oil glands and fur. The thick, triangular, 2 to 4-inch, emerald-green leaves, more or less heart-shaped at base, smooth to slightly hairy, are attached to their stems by 3″ leaf-stems (petioles). The furry blue .8″-long flowers are borne summer to mid-fall on branched stems in separated pairs (rather than clusters), each flower protected at base by a furry, gland-dotted, sharp-toothed calyx. Slow to spread by creeping roots; prefers well-drained soil, regular watering and bright shade. Zones 8-10.
S. carduacea (Thistle Sage): To 26″ tall. Annual or short-lived perennial herb, native to California. The plant arises on stiff, leafless stems from a basal rosette of furry white feathery 1″ leaves, wavy-edged to toothed and spiny. The lavender flowers are borne in summer in an unusual, dense, thistle-like head, with furry, oval to narrow, spiny-tipped, overlapping bracts. Unusual. Zones 8-10.
S. chiapensis (Chiapas Sage): 2-3′ tall x 3-4′ wide. Upright sage with deeply veined leaves attached to their stalks by long reddish leaf-stems; bright fuschia flowers July to October in widely spaced whorls, based by purplish calyxes. Must have
good drainage and not too much water; protect from cold drafts. Recommended for containers and hanging baskets; can be pruned to shape. From the cloud forests of Chiapas, México. Zones 9-11.
S. clevelandii (Jim Sage): Sweetly-scented, drought tolerant, compact shrub from 18″ to 2′ tall, native to the chaparral country of southern California. Narrow, toothed, grey-green leaves, wrinkled on their upper sides and green-stemmed in spring; in summer, whorls of white, blue, or violet flowers appear, protected by furry, oil gland-dotted calyxes. Bee-, butterfly-, and hummingbird magnet! Like the sweetgrass of the East Coast (Hierochloe odorata) and Louisiana’s vetiver root (Vetiveria zizanoides) this sage has a lasting fragrance when dried, and as a consequence has been used in sachets and closet bags. Zones 8-11.
- S. clevelandii ‘Whirly Blue’: Rich violet blossoms with dark purple calyxes.
S. columbariae (Golden Chia; Pashí): 4-28″ tall. An annual or short-lived perennial herb native to California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Sonora, and Baja, California, with featherlike, somewhat furry, irregularly divided, 2.8″ long leaves attached to the plant by 2″ stemlets. The pale- to mid-blue, purple-tipped flowers are borne in bristly, reddish-purple-bracted, globular heads at the ends of their stems.
A xeric species, native to dry undisturbed chaparral and coastal sage scrub below 3800′ elevation, requiring dry, well-drained soil in good sun. The seeds have been used in the same way the seeds of the true chia of chia pet fame (Salvia hispanica) have been used (see below), but unlike S. hispanica the plant is not a viable commercial crop because the seed-heads shatter when ripe, scattering their seeds and making them difficult to harvest. The Southern Californian Catholic Mission fathers grew this plant for its seed, which they used as for fevers and wound poultices. Zones 7-10.
S. discolor (Peruvian Sage; Andean Silver-Leaf Sage; Black-Flowered Sage): To 18″ tall. Unusual tender perennial from Peru, bearing rounded green sparsely hairy leaves with furry silver undersides and clusters of 3 to 9, 1″ long, purple-bracted blossoms of such a dark shade of indigo that they appear black. Zones 9-11.
S. dorisiana (Fruit-Scented Sage; Peach Sage): To 3′ tall. Shrubby perennial from Honduras, with large, shaggily furry magenta-pink fall or winter blossoms and furry, narrow to rounded to spatula-shaped leaves deliciously scented of fruit when stroked. Wonderful in fruit cups and herb crafts. Zones 8 (with protection)/9-11. Prune periodically to keep compact.
S. dorrii (Desert Sage, Dorr’s Sage, Grey Ball Sage, Mint Sage, Purple Sage, Tobacco Sage): 1-4′ tall x wide woody shrub native to sandy dry slopes and arroyo banks throughout the U.S.A.’s mountain west, including the Great Basin Range, the steep canyons and arroyos of Southern Utah’s Aquarius Plateau, northern Arizona, and south to the Mojave Desert. The hemispherical plants bear narrow, round-tipped, grey-green, smooth-edged, rough-textured, gland-dotted leaves that are tapered at their bases and attached to their stems by .4″-long petioles. When handled the leaves exude a scent that has been described as minty, pleasantly intense and mildly intoxicating. The blossoms, which remain on the plants for months after they have dried, are held in dense spikes notable for their furry, pink to violet, .4″-long bracts; the blue flowers themselves are about .4″ long, too, with calyxes nearly 1/3″ long. It is said that the inflorescences resemble those of the pussy willow (Salix caprea). A showy xeric species, surprisingly hardy (from Zones 5-10) if given the dry, very well-drained soil in full sun that it requires.
S. elegans (Pineapple Sage): Formerly S. rutilans. Native to México and Guatemala, growing 3-6′ tall outdoors. Slightly furry oval to D-shaped green leaves to 4″ long, notched, with blunt or heart-shaped bases and longish leaf-stems (to 1″+). The flowers, which hummingbirds go mad for, are narrow and bright scarlet, borne late summer till frost outdoors and into the winter indoors; just like the flowers of some species of honeysuckle, they have a sweet nectar that can be sucked out of them. The whole plant, but particularly the young leaves, is deliciously scented of sweet pineapple, making it a nice source of fragrant foliage for arrangements, fruit cups, and herb crafts. Let dry between waterings and do not prune until after the plant flowers. Zones 8-11. Cultivars include:
- S. elegans ‘Frieda Dixon’ (Peach Pineapple Sage): To 3′ tall, with salmon-red blossoms and a fruity scent.
- S. elegans ‘Golden Delicious’ (Golden Pineapple Sage): Relatively comnpact form, to 2′ tall, with scarlet blossoms.
S. guaranitica (Anise Sage; Guarani Sage): Perennial subshrub growing to over 6′ tall in the wild and subject to much selection in recent years. Sparsely hairy, pointed, oval, somewhat jagged-edged leaves, rounded or heart-shaped at their bases; in late summer appear the large, 2″-long blossoms, dark blue with violet-blue-tinged calyxes. Native to Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. Zones 7-10. Cultivars include:
- S. guaranitica ‘Argentine Skies’: 3-4′ tall. Dark green leaves and sky-blue flowers.
- S. guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ (3.5′ tall x 3′ wide): deep cobalt blue blossoms with nearly black calyxes all summer; large furry leaves.
- S. guaranitica ‘Blue Enigma’: To 6′ tall, with blue, green-calyxed blossoms.
- S. guaranitica ‘Blue Ensign’: 3.5-4′ tall x 3′ wide, with bright green, scented, spade-shaped leaves, smooth on their upper surfaces, and waving panicles of large, mid-blue, green-calyxed flowers. Zones 7-10.
S. hispanica (Chia; True Chia): To 3′ tall. An annual species, native to central and southern México and Guatemala and widely naturalized, with erect or upward-reaching, branched, furry stalks; notched, pointed, oval to lancelike, 1 to 3″ long, smooth to furry leaves attached to their stalks by 1-inch leaf-stems; and blue, 1/4″ long, oval-bracted, furry-calyxed summer flowers held in dense clusters of 6 to 10 at the ends of their flowering stems. The plants produce highly nutritious gluten-free seeds, containing 20% protein, 25% mostly soluble dietary fiber, and high levels of antioxidants. The seeds also yield 25-30% extractable oil containing up to 64% of omega-3 fatty acids (hence the species’ common name “chia,” a Nahuatl word meaning “oily”). Many plants offered as S. hispanica are actually the hardy perennial species S. lavandulifolia (see below). Zones 9-11.
The omega-3 and fiber rich seeds of Salvia hispanica may be eaten whole or mixed with toasted maize kernels, ground, and used in pinole flour. Since, like the seeds of S. hispanica‘s distant cousin, the sweet basil plant (Ocimum basilicum), the seeds form a gelatinous coating in water, they may be used in porridge, pudding, or drunk in water or fruit juice as the Mexican treat chia fresca. The ground seed may also be used in breads, cakes, and biscuits. Sprouted, the seeds may be used in much the same way that alfalfa sprouts are used, in salads, sandwiches, and soups. And of course, the moistened seeds, applied to the ridges and furrows of porous clay figurines, sprout into the green “hair” or “wool” of the infamous U.S. chia pet.
S. leucophylla (Chaparral Sage; San Luis Purple Sage): Furry white much-branched shrub to about 3′ tall, native to California, bearing blunt-tipped, crinkled, notched leaves with heart-shaped or flat bases. The leaves are furry and grey on their upper sides and silver-white beneath. The pink to blue or purple flowers are borne in clusters at intervals up and down their stems; they are protected by furry white bracts, sometimes tinted purple. Zones 8-11.
S. mellifera (California Black Bush Sage): Shrub to 6′ tall, with notched, rough, 2.4″, lancelike to oblong, pointy or blunt-tipped leaves, furry on their undersides, attached to their stalks by .8″ leaf-stems. The white, blue, or lavender-blue flowers are carried in dense spikes or heads and protected by largish bracts and spiny or bristly calyxes. Because bees love the flowers, black sage is one of the sages used in commercial apiaries. Zones 8-10. There is also a variegated form, Variegated Black Bush Sage, S. mellifera ‘Variegata’.
S. microphylla (Baby Sage, Graham’s Sage; Blackcurrant Sage): Syn. Salvia grahamii; S. neuropia. To 4.5′ tall and wide. First-year blooming shrub native to southeast Arizona and the mountains of east, west, and south México. Oval, serrated, smooth to lightly furry, blue-green leaves which when crushed exude the pleasant musky odor of mint and blackcurrant. Can spread via underground stems to form dense patches. Blooms heavily in late spring, sporadically through the summer, and more strongly in autumn, continuing through the winter in frost-free areas; the flowers, which can range from magenta through red and pink to rose, are highly attractive to hummingbirds; are held in small clusters of 2 to 4 on 4-6″ racemes.
S. microphylla thrives best in full to part sun. Deer resistant, requiring little water once established; may be pruned nearly to ground level and will resprout. Prune in late winter after last frost. Often mistaken for S. greggii, with which it frequently hybridizes (among other differences, S. greggii has smooth-edged, narrowish leaves). In México, the plant is said to be used medicinally, and the leaves are sometimes used in tea. Varieties and hybrids include:
- S. microphylla var. neurepia (syn. Salvia neurepia): Leaves to 2″ long, with 2-flowered, cherry-red, autumn bloom-clusters on 8″ spikes. México.
- S. microphylla var. wislizenii (syn. Salvia lemmonii): Furry, pointed .6″-1.2″ long leaves, with compact vermilion to magenta blossoms. Zones 9-11.
- S. microphylla ‘Blush Pink’: Rich pink flowers.
- S. microphylla ‘Dennis’s Pink’: Large, hooded pink flowers splotched white, with dark grey calyxes.
- S. microphylla ‘Hoja Grande’: 3-4′ x 3-4′, drought-tolerant, with wavy-edged green leaves, longlasting cherry-red and magenta flowers in slender spikes, based with rosy brown calyxes. From Nuevo Leon, México; hardy Zones 7-9.
- S. microphylla ‘Newby Hall’: Robust shrub to 6 feet tall, with oval 2″ leaves, furry on both sides, and large bright red blossoms.
- S. microphylla ‘Oxford’: Dark pink flowers.
- S. microphylla ‘Ruth Stungo’ (Variegated Baby Sage): Green and white leaves.
- S. microphylla ‘San Carlos Festival’: 2′ tall x 2.5-3′ wide. Textured, triangular, wavy-edged green leaves, bronzy in winter; hundreds of rich ruby-throated magenta blossoms spring to fall. From Tamaulipas, México; hardy Zones 7-10.
- S. microphylla ‘Wild Watermelon’: 3-4′ tall and wide. Big, watermelon-pink blossoms with white-marked throats appear in spring and fall and occasionally over the summer. Discovered by Don Mahoney at 7000′ on México’s Mt. Cerro Potosi. Hardy from Zone 6 (with protection)/7-10.
- S. microphylla x S. greggii ‘James Compton’: Oval, serrated leaves and large dark crimson flowers.
- S. microphylla x S. greggii ‘Pat Vlasto’ : Unserrated leaves and peach-orange flowers.
- S. microphylla x S. greggii ‘Red Velvet’: 4′ tall and wide. Rounded rich green leaves; velvety, warm brown bloom-spikes and calyxes; huge rich red blossoms June to October. Introduced by Scott Ogden and Yucca-Do Nursery. Tolerates heat, drought, and humidity. Hardy Zones 7-10.
S. spathacea (Pitcher Sage; Hummingbird Sage; Crimson Sage): To 3 feet, of erect, sparsely branched, robust habit, with large 8″ long bright green crinkled leaves (furry and white on their undersides), and whorls of purple-bracted flowers that have been described as “chocolate red.” Native to California. Zones 8-11.
S. uliginosa (Brazilian Sage): To 5′, with bright blue flowers; requires a moisture retentive soil (its native habitat is the Brazilian swamps). Zones 9-11.
OTHER SAGE SPECIES
S. africana-lutea (Beach Salvia, Dune Salvia, Golden Salvia, Geeblomsalie): To 3′ tall. Stunning furry shrub from South Africa, with white, .4-1.4″-long, rounded to narrow, furry, oil gland-dotted leaves. Summer to fall the blossoms appear: terminal clusters of large, 1 to 2-inch, furry, oil gland-dotted flowers in unusual shades of golden-brown, reddish-brown or mauve; they are protected by 1/2″, purplish, bell-shaped calyxes. For well-drained soils. Zones 9-11.
S. argentea (Silver Sage, Silver Clary): A drought-tolerant biennial or short-lived perennial to 3-5′ tall x 2-3′ wide, native to southern Europe and northern Africa. Silver sage forms in its first year a basal rosette of soft, 6-10″ long, toothed or lobed, round-tipped, felted leaves, attached to the plant by 8″ leaf-stems (“petioles”). When the leaves first emerge, they are crinkled, and an attractive silvery-white; they flatten out as they mature and, after the plant blossoms, shade to a pleasant grey-green. In cool fall weather they turn silver again.
The candelabra-like flowering stems emerge in June and July the second year, bearing widely spaced, grey-calyxed flowers on spreading panicles in clusters of 4 to 10. The blossoms are large for those of a sage, about 1.25″ long, white to very pale yellow, flecked pink to violet. Remove the spent flower stalks before they have time to set seed, and the plant may survive into a third year. For well-drained soils in full sun; regular water. Zones 5-11.
S. cypria: See S. fruticosa below.
S. dominica: To 3′ tall. Much-branched shrub native to the Middle East, with hairy, scalloped, wrinkled leaves and clusters of yellow-tinged white blossoms, often marked in brown. The whole plant is strongly aromatic. Zones 9-11.
S. forskaohlei (often mislabeled S. forsskaolii and many other spelling variants): 10-40″ tall. Perennial herb forming basal clumps of 2-12″ leaves, oval or lyre-shaped, with heart-shaped bases, jagged to rounded teeth, and long leaf-stems. From these clumps arise arching stems terminated in summer by dense clusters of .8-1.2″-long, violet-blue to pinkish-magenta flowers marked white or yellow, protected by rather spiny calyxes. For well-drained soils. Native to Southeast Europe and Western Asia. Zones 6(with protection)/7-9.
S. fruticosa (Greek Sage; Khokh barri; Na’ama Hobeiq’es-sedr): To about 3′ tall and wide. Many-branched, silvery xeric shrub (fruticosa means “shrubby”) of variable furriness and highly variable leaves, native to eastern Mediterranean, southern Italy, Israel, the Canary Islands, and North Africa. The 2″, more-or-less wrinkled leaves can be simple or feathery, rounded or lance-shaped, and are attached to their stalks by 1″ leaf-stems; they are very high in essential aromatic oils, which contain some of the same constituents as lavender oil. The flowers, which appear spring to summer, may be pink to mauve or white; they are held in clusters at the tips of their stalks and are protected by hairy, scent-gland-dotted, oxblood-red bracts. In its native habitat the species is a host for the Cynipid gall wasp, and the woolly, 1″ galls that form on the branches, called “apples,” are when soft peeled and eaten. They are said to be fragrant, tasty, and juicy. Hardy to 15ºF (Zones 8b-11).
S. glutinosa (Jupiter’s Distaff): To 3′ tall. Upright perennial herb, furry and dotted with oil glands, bearing furry, notched, rounded to D-shaped, pointy-tipped leaves attached to their stems by leaf-stems to 4″ long. Large, yellow, brown-flecked blossoms are carried in clusters of 2 to 6 in summer. Native to Europe. Zones 5-9.
S. judaica (Judean Sage): Upright perennial herb native to Palestine, bearing many branches near its flower-ends. Lyre-shaped or oval and heart-shaped leaves, scalloped or irregularly toothed, with long leaf-stems and toothed leaflets. The flowers are violet, with maroon to purple calyxes, carried in groups of 6 to 10 in much-branched inflorescences. Striking. Possibly this plant inspired the design of the ancient Jewish sacred candelabra (see above). Zones 9-11.
S. lavandulifolia (Lavender-Leaved Sage):
To 1′ tall. Furry silver to white basal clumps of narrow, long-stemmed, 10″ leaves; blue-violet flowers in clusters of 6 to 9. Native to Spain; Zones 5/6-10.
Salvia libanotica: See Salvia fruticosa above.
Salvia lobryana: See Salvia fruticosa above.
S. pratensis (Meadow Clary): To 3′ tall. Erect perennial native to Europe and Great Britain, with branched or unbranched stems springing from a basal clump of 6″ long, oval, furred, wrinkled, toothed to notched leaves, blunt-tipped and heart-shaped on the ends nearest the main stalk (to which they are connected by a short leaf-stem or petiole). The leaves higher up the stalks are without petioles and appear in opposite pairs along their stalks. The brown-calyxed flowers, which appear in summer, are violet, white, or pink, held in clusters of 4 to 6 at the ends of branched or unbranched 18″ stems. The whole plant is furred and dotted with oil-glands. Zones 3-9.
S. sclarea (Clary; Clary Sage; Bright Eyes; Oculus Christi [Eye of Christ]): Syn. S. horminoides. 1-3′ tall. Upright, much-branched, furry perennial or biennial herb, dotted with oil glands. The wrinkled, irregularly toothed to notched leaves can grow to about .5-1′ long, their bases either heart-shaped and attached to their stems with 3.5″-long leaf-stems; or the leaf-bases surround the stems so that it looks as though the stems are growing through them. The 1″-long, gaping flowers can come in cream and lilac to pink or blue, and possess large, colorful, concave bracts in shades of pale mauve, lilac, white, or pink marked pink at edge. Much used in medicine and flower arranging, the fragrance of the plant has been likened to a combination of ambergris (a perfume once distilled from the exudates of the sperm whale and now, fortunately, artificial in origin) and muscatel wine. The essential oil of clary sage has been used to flavor wines and in perfumes as a fixative (an agent that prolongs the scent of a perfume). Zones 5-9. (For Annual Clary Sage, see Salvia viridis below.)
- S. sclarea ‘Turkestanica’ (Turkestan Sage) is a highly decorative pink-stemmed variant, the leaves “pierced” by the stems to which they are attached; the flowers are white, flecked with pink, borne in long spikes to 30″. There is also a white-flowered variety, S. sclarea var. turkestanica ‘Alba’.
S. triloba: See S. fruticosa above.
S. verbenaca (Vervain Sage; Wild Clary): To 28″ tall. Upright to leaning, furry, oil gland dotted plants bear rounded, wavy, furry, notched to irregularly toothed, wrinkled leaves attached to their stalks by 3″ leaf-stems. The lavender or lilac to purple flowers are carried summer to fall in clusters of 4 to 10, in spikes. Native to Europe and Western Asia; widely naturalized. Zones 6-10.
S. verticillata: To 3′ tall. Furry, gland-dotted, upright to leaning perennial with 5″ long, furry, rounded to lyre-shaped, wrinkled, wavy-edged, irregularly toothed to notched, pointy-tipped, furry leaves; the leaf-bases have 1 to 2 pairs of unequally sized lobes attached to their stalks by 3″ long leaf-stems. The violet, lilac or white flowers are borne in summer in dense clusters of 20 to 40 blossoms each, each blossom possessing a furry violet calyx. Native from Europe to Western Asia; naturalized in Northern Europe and North America. Zones 6-9.
S. virgata (Violet Sage): To 3′ tall. Furry perennial herb native to Europe, from the Eastern Mediterranean to Central Asia. The large rounded notched or irregularly toothed leaves can grow up to 1′ long and are furry and dotted with oil-glands; their bases either pierce their stalks or are connected to their stalks by 6″ leaf-stems. The small purple or white flowers, which are protected by purple bracts, are carried in clusters of 2 to 6 in summer on long, attractive bloom-sprays. Zones 7-10.
S. viridis (Annual Clary Sage): 18-24″ tall. Furry upright annual or biennial herb with narrow to rounded, somewhat notched, blunt-tipped leaves, their bases blunt, heart-shaped or wedge-shaped, connected to their stalks by 2″ leaf-stems. The flowers appear in summer, bearing variously colored bracts to .4″ long; green or purple furry .4″ calyxes; and white to lilac, violet, or purple flowers. Cultivars include:
- S. v. ‘Alba’, with white bracts;
- S. v. ‘Bluebeard’, with dark-veined, pale violet-blue bracts;
- S. v. ‘Oxford Blue’, with broad blue bracts (try saying that 12 times quickly!);
- S. v. ‘Purpurea’, with rose-red to purple bracts;
- S. v. ‘Rose Bouquet’, with pink bracts;
- S. v. ‘Violacea’, with violet, darker-veined bracts.
SOURCES FOR THIS ARTICLE
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