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Salvia is native to the northern Mediterranean coast. Distributed worldwide and widely cultivated, it is hardy north into Canada. Sage comes from the Latin word salvere, which means salvation. It was once so valued by the Chinese that they traded green tea for sage at a ratio of 4 to 1. In Yugoslavia today, fields of sage are planted and harvested like wheat: three times a year for culinary use. Native Americans use it medicinally, mixing it with bear grease to make a salve for skin sores and as an infusion for rubdowns and baths. It is associated with immortality, longevity, and mental capacity.
Harvest and Use: In the herb garden, sage adds a nice gray-green accent, especially next to bright green chives and darker green oregano. For the flower garden, there are many, many ornamental varieties to choose from. Sage does not loose its smell or color when dried, making it a beautiful and aromatic culinary wreath all by itself or as the background for other herb wreaths, tussie-mussies, and potpourri. It yields a yellow-buff color to wool mordanted with alum, (A mordant is a substance used in dyes to fix color) and a gray-green color to iron-mordanted yarn.
Sage has many uses: culinary, aromatic, ornamental, cosmetic, craftwork, as a dye, and as a preservative. It has even been smoked as a tobacco. It is an ingredient in perfumes and soaps. You can make a strong infusion to use as a hair rinse for restoring color to graying hair. It has been used to repel insects, such as flies, cabbage moths, and carrot flies, and to attract honeybees who turn it into a superb honey. Sage has antibacterial properties, making it a natural preservative for meat, poultry, fish, and condiments. Recently, sage extracts have been made into flavorless antioxidants to increase the shelf life of foods. Another antioxidant prepared from both sage and rosemary improves the stability of soy oil and potato chips.
Medicinal uses are many. An infusion makes a beneficial gargle for sore throat, tonsillitis, mouth ulcers, or gum disease. It can be taken as a tonic and liver stimulant or to improve digestive function and circulation. It is drying and estrogenic and is therefore good for reducing lactation when weaning and for night sweats during menopause. This drying effect is why it is found in herbal deodorants and has been prescribed to reduce salivation in Parkinson's disease. Research has shown it lowers blood sugar in diabetics. However, it is toxic used in excess or over a long period of time. It is not given in pregnancy or to epileptics. It is safe in seasoning quantities. The British herbalist, Penelope Ody, states that the purple variety (Salvia officinalis Purpurascens Group') is generally the one used in medicine as it is more effective than the common green one (Salvia officinalis).
Sage is the herb par excellence for stuffing, eggs, and cheese. It has a smoky, musky flavor. Its astringent property makes it excellent for cutting the richness of food. It is one of the best herbs with fatty meat such as pork, sausage, duck, goose, and lamb. It is eaten fresh in salad. Add it to soups, marinades, artichokes, tomatoes, asparagus, carrots, squash, corn, potatoes, eggplant, snap beans, leeks, onions, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, oranges, lemons, garlic, lentils, and shell beans. Sage sprigs can be deep fried and used as a garnish for roast meats. Mince fresh sage leaves and add to any breading.
Harvest lightly in the first year and no later than the beginning of September. In the spring of the second year, prune back severely to keep the plants from becoming woody and less productive. Two or three harvests are possible in year 2. Replace plants every 4 to 5 years for best production. When harvesting, leave a few leaves to help the plant continue growing. You can dry small bunches by hanging them upside down out of the sun in an area where there is good air circulation, or you can snip leaves from the branches and spread them on cloth or paper in the shade. When they are thoroughly dry, store them in a tight-lidded jar in a cool, dark place. Dried leaves have a stronger but slightly different taste than the fresh ones.
Cultivation and Propagation: Sage thrives in dry meadows, on rocky hillsides, and on open ground in sunny sites. It likes a slightly alkaline soil pH of 6.4, and well-drained, moderately rich soil in full sun. Water it freely during the growing season. It takes two years for plants to reach their full growth. When companion planting, put it with cabbage, carrots, strawberries, tomatoes, or marjoram.
Sage is not difficult to grow from seed, but the seed stores poorly, so it is a good idea to test its germination before planting a lot. It germinates quickly. Plant ten seeds and count the number that germinate. At 70°F, they should germinate within nine days, which will give you the percentage of viable seed. Transplant sage seedlings when they reach 3" tall in late spring. You can also divide plants that are already established in spring or propagate from 4" cuttings.
Salvia officinalis is a perennial shrub with woody, square stems. The entire plant is somewhat downy. It is "sage green", and the long oval shaped leaves are on long stalks, and are softly velvety. They have a pebbly texture, also. It grows from 12 to 30" in height and spreads to 2' wide. The pink, purple or white flowers are tubular and grow in whorls. My plants flowered after 3 years. General cultivation information above.
Salvia officinalis Purpurascens Group has aromatic, spectacular purple-gray foliage that should be a focal point in the garden. It grows well in outdoor containers and raised beds. It can grow to 24-32" in height and spreads widely to 36". Purple sage is the most effective sage medicinally, but it is less hardy (Zone 7) than the garden variety. It can be brought indoors for winter to a bright, ventilated area. General cultivation information above.
Salvia officinalis 'Tricolor' has variegated leaves of cream, purple, red, and green. It is hardy to zone 7 and makes a gorgeous decorative border in the garden or in outdoor containers. It grows 24" high and spread to 12". It may be brought indoors for winter. General cultivation information above.
Salvia elegans has fresh pineapple-scented leaves that are great for tea and to add to cold summer drinks. Chicken, jellies, salad, and cheese all can stand a sprinkling of this herb. The flowers may be dipped in batter and fried as fritters
Pineapple sage makes a good background shrub in the garden, in outdoor containers, or indoors in a pot on a sunny windowsill. It grows bushy and upright outdoors, but not as large in a container inside or out. Outside it will grow to 36" and spread as wide. It is a tender perennial in the north, hardy to zone 9 where it is an evergreen shrub with bright green, oval, pointed leaves. The brilliant red flowers appear on spikes in late fall, and they remain until frost on outdoor plants and all winter on indoor plants. General cultivation information above.