The savories (Satureja spp.) belong to the Deadnettle Family (Lamiaceae), like so many of our important aromatic herbs. There are 30 species in the Satureja genus, all native to temperate and warm temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, but only two are at all well-known, both native to Southern Europe: summer savory (Satureja hortensis), a shrubby annual; and winter savory (Satureja montana), a hardy perennial shrublet.
All savories possess undivided leaves with partial or minute leaf-stems. The two-lipped, straight-tubed flowers are held in whorls, the lower lip of each flower three-lobed; each flower is protected by a tubular, 5-toothed calyx.
Summer and winter savory (see below) are native to the Mediterranean region (France, Spain, Italy, and the Balkans); the Ukraine; Turkey, Lebanon, and Israel.
Savory in general is known in the Provençal region of France as le pèbre d’ai, donkey pepper; in the Valais region as la poivrette, little pepper. Other French regional names for savory include la sadrée and l’herbe de Saint-Julien (herb of St. Julian). The German name for savory, Bohnenkraut, and the Dutch name, Bonenkruid, both mean bean herb, reflecting savory’s antiflatulent properties (see below). Other European names for savory include: Catalàn, sajolida; Danish, sar; Esperanto, satureo; Finnish, kynteli; and Polish, czubrica.
SPECIES OF SAVORY
Satureja hortensis L. (Summer Savory): Syn. Satureja laxiflora K. Koch; S. pachyphylla K. Koch; S. postii Aznav. 8-10″ tall, with tiny, narrow, aromatic dark green leaves and tiny white or pink flowers in late summer to early fall. The flavor and aroma of the leaves are sweeter than those of winter savory (see below), something akin to those of marjoram, oregano, or thyme.
Subspecies and cultivars of summer savory include:
- Satureja hortensis ‘Aromata’ (Aromata Summer Savory): To 10″. White flowers August-September; the leaves are particularly fragrant and flavorful.
Summer savory is known by various names in Europe:
- BULGARIAN: chubritsa
- FRENCH: la sarriette des jardins (garden savory); la sarriette commune (common savory)
- GERMAN: Bohnenkraut; Kölle
- GREEK: throúmbi
- HUNGARIAN: borsikafű
- ITALIAN: santoreggia
- POLISH: cząber ogrodowy
- PORTUGUESE: segurelha
- ROMANIAN: cimbru
- SPANISH: el ajedrea de jardin
Satureja montana L. (Winter Savory): To 20″ tall. Woody shrublet bearing aromatic, leathery, flexible, dark green, narrow to rounded, smooth to sparsely furred leaves. The tiny white to pale violet flowers appear summer to fall. Zones 5-8.
Winter savory is also known as:
- FRENCH: la sarriette vivace (perennial savory); la sarriette des montagnes (mountain savory)
- GERMAN: Winter-Bergminze (winter mountain mint)
- ITALIAN: santoreggia selvatica
- POLISH: czaber górski
- SPANISH: el sabroso
Subspecies and cultivars include:
- S. montana ‘Adamovica’ (Yugoslavian Winter Savory): To 1′, with white flowers July-August. Zones 5-9. Sometimes listed as S. adamovica; Thymus adamovica.
- S. montana ssp. illyrica (Creeping Winter Savory): Syn. S. montana ‘Illyrica’; S. montana ssp. repens; S. montana ‘Prostrata’. 4-6″ tall. Curvy-branched mounds of smooth, hairless stems spangled with cascading sprays of white blossoms. Recommended for rockeries. Zones 6-8. Mountain Valley says it has a longer growing season than other savories, making it nice for winter container growing. MV adds that while creeping winter savory is not as strongly flavored as S. montana, it is still tasty, and that periodic shearing of the woody branches will help force fresh, new leaf-growth.
- S. montana ssp. intricata : Leaves margined with fine hairs; blossoms in dense whorls.
- S. montana ssp. kitaibelii: Syn. S. kitaibelii. Stems smooth in hairless on two sides.
- S. montana ‘Nana’ (Dwarf Winter Savory): Dwarf cultivar, to 8″ tall.
- S. montana ‘Procumbens’: Bright green leaves on a 6″ tall creeping shrublet.
OTHER SAVORY SPECIES
Satureja biflora (Lemon Savory): Under 1′ tall. Annual to perennial with small lemon scented leaves. Mountain Valley describes it as dainty and difficult to grow, at least in the greenhouse,. Zones 9?-11?.
Satureja thymbra (Pink Savory; Barrel Sweetener): 12-16″ tall. A drought- and sun-tolerant evergreen woody shrub, stiff and globular, with hairy stems, roughish-textured little narrow to spatula-shaped green leaves, and pink blossoms for several weeks in spring. The leaves and flowers have a flavor that is said to be rich and somewhat sweet, ideal for tea. Said by one source to have been introduced to Spain from Southern Asia by the Moors (800-1492 C.E./A.D.); anothe source claims the species is native to the Balkans. Pink savory is one of the ingredients — with conehead thyme (Thymus capitatus), Syrian oregano (Origanum maru) and Thymbra spicata — of the spice mixture called za’atar in Persia. Zones 8-10. Prune out woody branches in early spring, and shear off flowers after bloom.
Satureja viminea (Serpentine Savory; Costa Rican Mint Bush; Jamaican Mint Bush): To 3′ tall. Vigorous, frost-tender shrub with glossy, lime green, 1/4-1″ long oval leaves and numerous white blossoms, the whole intensely scented of pennyroyal. Recommended for pots and indoor growing in good light. Zones 8-10.
SAVORIES THAT AREN’T
The genera Clinipodium, Calamintha, Micromeria, Pycnanthemum, Satureja and Thymus are so closely related that a number of plants once assigned to Satureja have been recognized as actually belonging to one of the other groups. They include:
- Satureja douglasii (Yerba Buena), reassigned to Micromeria chamissonis.
- Satureja vulgaris (Wild Basil), reassigned to Clinopodium vulgare.
GROWING THE SAVORIES
Savories make good plants for the very front of a border. Both types rejoice in a well-drained, alkaline soil in full sun. Summer savory needs a loamier soil than winter savory, which like thyme prefers the kind of gravelly soil one finds on mountain slopes (Satureja montana means “mountain savory”), but too much manure or fertilizer will weaken savory plants. Set winter savory starts 18 inches apart; summer savory, 6 to 9 inches apart. Keep savories’ woody growth pruned to force new, nonwoody growth, and shear off flowers after they bloom.
SAVORY IN HISTORY & FOLKLORE
The Latin genus name, Satureja, is derived from the Arabic za’atar or sa’tar. Savory is said to be one of the oldest flavoring herbs. It has also long held a reputation as a medicinal. According to an article appearing in the Journal of Agricultural Science, summer savory leaves possess antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, mostly thanks to the presence of free phenolic acids, especially rosmarinic acid. (It was found that plants raised with supplemental nitrogen fertilizer had significantly greater rosmarinic acid content than plants raised without such fertilizer. They were taller, too.)
In addition, studies done in 1970 and 1980 by Professor Pellecuer at the University of Montpellier found essential oil of winter savory to possess bactericidal and antiparasitic properties.
This lends credibility to folk uses for savory: savories have been employed as digestive aids for flatulence and colic, general tonics for the prevention of diarrhea, as expectorants for the lungs and head, as antiseptic gargles, steeped in wine as tonics, particularly after fevers, and as disinfectant smudges. They are recommended in facial steams and baths for persons with oily skin. Rubbing a sprig of summer savory on an insect bite or sting is said to give immediate relief.
The Romans valued savory highly, and are credited with having spread it throughout Northern Europe. The ancient Roman poet Virgil recommended planting savory near beehives, as bees are extremely attracted to savory blossoms. The late Roman writer Pliny (77 C.E.) reported savory’s frequent use as a meat and sauce seasoning.
The old English writer Columella recommended preserving young onions for winter by alternating layers of onions with layers of savory or thyme (both of which have antiseptic properties), then pouring into the pot a mixture of three parts vinegar to one part brine. The 14th century writer Agnus Castus wrote, “This herb has leaves like [those of] hyssop. The virtue of this herb is if [a man] uses it much, he shall be [greatly] attracted to women. Also, [savory] will destroy [nausea] in a man’s stomach if he drinks it with warm wine. Also if there is any kind of medical complaint for which a man would [ordinarily] use thyme, he may substitute [savory] for the other [thyme], for they are very much alike in virtue.”
Shakespeare mentions savory in The Winter’s Tale, together with mints, sweet marjoram, and lavender, suggesting that savory was as well-known to the Elizabethans as these other herbs. Richard Surflet (The Countrie Farme, 1600) says of “sommer savorie,” “The leaves and flowers applied unto the head in [the] forme of a cappe or garland, doth awake the drowsily inclined,” perhaps a useful suggestion for long business meetings.
Nicholas Culpeper praised summer savory highly. He reported, “Mercury claims dominion over this herb. Keep it dry by you all the year, if you love yourself and your ease.” He recommended using the juice of the leaves as (1) eyedrops for dimness of sight “if it proceed from thin humours distilled from the brain;” (2) heated with oil of roses and dropped into the ears or mixed with wheat flour and applied externally to relieve deafness and ringing in the ears; and (3) sniffed up the nose to loosen tough phlegm from the chest and lungs and to enliven dull, lethargic spirits. He also recommended summer savory poultices for sciatica and “palsied members.” He considered summer savory better than winter savory for use in making preserves and herbal syrups.
Both summer and winter savory were among the herbs brought to North America by European settlers; they are listed as such by John Josselyn in his New-England’s Rarities Discovered (1672).
COOKING WITH SAVORY
“The flavour of savory,” writes Tom Stobart, “is very biting, vaguely like thyme but more bitter and quite distinct.” He adds that leaves harvested before the plants flower will have the best flavor.
Savory leaves maintain their flavor and aroma when dried, so they may be used throughout the winter. They are recommended for those on salt-free diets. Summer savory has a sweeter flavor than winter savory, which makes it the preferred species to use in cooking. Reportedly, in Atlantic Canada summer savory is used like sage, in poultry dressings, bean dishes (for which savory is said to have a natural affinity), stews, meat pies, sausages, and in crêtonade, a pork dressing made to accompany turkey, goose and duck. Lady Northcote quotes “Cotton’s sequel” to Izaak Walton’s The Complete Angler as recommending “a handful of sliced horseradish-root, with a handsome little faggot of rosemary, thyme, and winter savoury” as a dressing for trout.
Savory plays an important role in Bulgarian cuisine: according to Foodista.com, “Instead of salt and pepper, a Bulgarian table will have three condiments: salt, paprika, and savory. When these are mixed it is called sharena sol, colorful salt.” In Romanian cuisine, summer savory is especially favored to flavor sarmale, stuffed cabbage or grapeleaf rolls. Winter savory leaves have been used to flavor trout. For garnishing, adds Grieve, savory has also been used as a substitute for parsley and chervil (though of course savory looks and tastes nothing like them).
Owing to its antiflatulence powers, savory is recommended by many cooks and herbalists for use in legume cookery. This use, explains Stobart, is traditional in the cuisines of Switzerland, France, and Germany, but it was known in England as early as the late 16th century: John Gerard (The Herball, 1597) explains: “[Summer savory] … is with good success boiled and eaten with beans, peas, and other windy pulses.” Grieve says of summer savory, “sprigs of it, fresh, may be boiled with broad [i.e., fava] beans and green peas, in the same manner as mint. [Savory] is also boiled with dried peas in making pea-soup.” However, “Some,” says Stobart, speaking of the use of savory in bean cookery, “regard this as a mistake. When overdone it is certainly quite as barbarous as [overdoing] mint, which the French consider an English mistake.”
OTHER USES FOR SAVORY
According to a monograph appearing in the open-access journal Molecules (Vol. 12, No. 12, 2007), the essential oils of certain Greek species of savory (including Satureja montana and Satureja thymbra) have been found to contain chemicals that can kill mosquito larvae (Culex pipiens molestus).
SOURCES FOR THIS ARTICLE
- M. Babalar, H. Mumivand, J. Hadian, S. Mohamad and F. Tabatabaei, “Effects of Nitrogen and Calcium Carbonate on Growth, Rosmarinic Acid Content and Yield of Satureja hortensis L.” Abstract, Journal of Agricultural Science, quoted on Wikisource (www.wikisource.com).
- Bremness, Lesley. The Complete Book of Herbs. (New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1988; ISBN 0-670-81894-1.)
- Foodista (www.foodista.com), the open-source recipe site
- Grieve, Mrs. M. A Modern Herbal In Two Volumes; Vol. II: I-Z. (New York: Dover Publications, 1971. ISBN 0-486-22799-5.)
- Griffiths, Mark. Index of Garden Plants. (Portland: Timber Press, Inc., 1994; ISBN 0-88192-246-3.)
- Hill, Thomas. The Gardener’s Labyrinth. (Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1988; a reprint of the 5th  Edition. ISBN 0-19-282580-1).
- Mountain Valley Growers (mountainvalleygrowers.com)
- Northcote, Lady Rosalind. The Book of Herbs. (London & New York: John Lane: The Bodley Head, 1912.)
- Sandy Mush Herb Nursery Handbook, Edition 9, 2004.
- Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 2008 Catalog (www.wellsweep.com).
- Wikipedia: “Za’atar.”
- Wikipedia France: “Sarriette.”