Favourite Herbs: Sage

Sage

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Salvia officinalis

Hardy perennial

45 to 60 cm; spread to 1 m.

Herb with woolly, pebbled, oval grey-green or variegated leaves and blue, purple, pink or white flowers.

Try these!

Salvia officinalis (garden sage): Most commonly grown; the main culinary variety

Salvia officinalis purpurea (purple sage): Very aromatic purple foliage; excellent in stuffings, omelettes, soups, and stews; requires winter protection to survive

Salvia officinalis ‘Tricolor’ (tricolour sage): Aromatic foliage; mild flavour; very decorative; tender perennial—requires winter protection to survive

Salvia elegans [aka S. rutilans] (pineapple sage): Tender perennial; very sweet, vibrant red flowers

Planting

Sage is best grown from young plants purchased from a garden centre.

How much: At least two plants.

When: Two weeks after the date of the average last spring frost.

Where: Full sun, sheltered. Will tolerate light shade. Grows well in containers. Prefers rich, well-drained soil. Space plants 30 to 45 cm apart.

Care and Nurture

Sage requires some care to grow well. Do not overwater. Prune lightly in July, after flowering, to encourage new growth. Sage bushes are short-lived perennials; they get woody, produce less foliage, and begin to die out after 3 or 4 years. I like to replace my plant with new stock after 3 years. In cooler climates, mulch lightly in the fall to protect plants from winter's chill.

Harvesting

Harvest leaves regularly to encourage new growth. The younger leaves have a better flavour.

For best flavour: Harvest leaves before the flowers open.

Leaves: Harvest S. officinalis throughout the season, up to early fall. Harvest individual leaves by clipping the leaf stalk where it attaches to the plant stem. Cut sprigs and use whole, or strip the leaves. Discard tough stalks.

Flowers: Harvest S. elegans flowers as they open. Clip cleanly from the stem. Remove any green bits before eating.

Preserving the Harvest

Dry sage leaves slowly to preserve their flavour; they take a long time to dry, but once they are thoroughly dry, they will keep for about a year. Use flowers fresh or preserve in vinegar. Pineapple sage flowers are best crystallized—the red flowers are very pretty.

Tips

  • Here are some other edible sage varieties you may want to try.
    • Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’: Low-growing plant with extra-large leaves; one of the best-known choice strains
    • Salvia officinalis aurea (golden sage): Very pretty chartreuse yellow leaves; same flavour as standard sage.
    • Salvia officinalis ‘Holt's Mammoth’: Tall plant with extra-large leaves; a well-known choice strain
  • Clary sage (Salvia sclarea), an annual sage grown for its aromatic flowers, which may be blue, purple, mauve, or cream-coloured, has great ornamental value. We sell it as a bedding plant, and although it’s not our most popular annual, there are customers who ask for it year after year to plant in their flower beds.

To Note:

  • Put dried sage leaves in the linen drawer to discourage insects.
  • Sage was first cultivated by the ancient Greeks, who valued it as a medicinal plant. Sage has long been purported to possess great healing properties; a proverb from the Middle Ages goes, "Why should a man die if sage flourishes in his garden?"
  • Sage was so valued by the Chinese in the 17th century that Dutch merchants found the Chinese would trade three chests of China Tea for one chest of sage.
  • The Romans considered sage a sacred herb and gathered it with ceremony. A sacrifice of bread and wine was made, and the gatherer wore a white tunic, feet bared and washed. The sage was never cut with an iron tool—a good idea, since iron salts are not compatible with sage.
  • There is a superstition that sage grows at its best when the wife rules the house! It is also said that the sage plant will thrive if all is well with its owner and will droop when fortunes fall.
  • In medieval times, sage was believe to have magical properties. Here is a typical sage charm: Make three holes in a sage leaf. Thread them with a hair from your head as well as one from the woman you desire. Bury the leaf under her doorstep. The woman of your dreams will love you forever.