Every Shade of Sage

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Photo by Getty Images/vicuschka

Sage’s distinctive, savory scent makes it one of the most versatile and useful herbs around. Though best known as a seasoning for meat and vegetables, sage’s roots are steeped in history.

Common sage (Salvia officinalis) originated in the Mediterranean, where it was used for many different culinary purposes. Through cultivation and naturalization, the genus Salvia quickly expanded to include an estimated 900 species worldwide.

Though first featured in culinary arts, the uses of sage stretch far beyond the kitchen. Ancient Greek, Roman, and Egyptian healers tested the herb’s medicinal potential on everything from fertility to the common cold. Today, researchers are studying sage’s effects on memory, cholesterol, and menopause. Herbalists burn sage incense to cleanse the environment and spiritually refresh their homes. Even wild sage plants find value in supporting pollinators.

Sage: A Wise Choice

Sage is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), and when you rub its fuzzy leaves gently between your fingers and smell, its relation is simply undeniable. Common sage, also known as garden sage, is still a popular choice in herb and kitchen gardens. Garden sage grows easily in a pot or in the ground, ready to pluck for seasonal dishes and flavored drinks. For best results, plant in full sun and well-drained soil. It thrives year-round in Zones 5 through 9. In late spring and early summer, fragrant lavender floral spikes invite pollinators. Evergreen foliage remains on twiggy branches, particularly during dry winters.

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Left to its natural habit, common sage reaches 1 to 3 feet high and needs an equal amount of space to sprawl. Pruning old growth before blooms appear, and again when flowers fade, keeps its woody stems in check. Mature leaves retain flavor well into cooler weather, making it a reliable Thanksgiving standby. Like the leaves, the flowers are edible; they add spicy bits of color to salads and primavera dishes. Fortunately, deer, rabbits, and cabbage moths dislike Salvia plants’ minty fragrance; grown as a companion plant, it helps deter hungry garden pests.

Once you’ve grown common sage, it’s hard to resist branching out to try other species of culinary sage. There are a wide array of flavors, ranging from pungent to fruity. Greek sage (S. pomifera) has a zestier bite than common sage, and complements hearty meats and stews. Its minty essence is also wonderfully soothing when brewed with honey-lemon tea.

With its roots from Mediterranean culinary culture, sage still plays a vital role in the region’s cuisine. Along with an army of herbs — oregano, basil, mint, parsley, and rosemary — it regularly stars in favorite modern Mediterranean foods.
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Pineapple sage (S. elegans) is aptly named for its delicate fruity scent and flavorful leaves. Its narrow, yellow-green foliage showcases bright-red floral spires in late summer and early fall. Hummingbirds and butterflies flock to its sweet nectar, a welcome resource when summer blooms are dwindling. Pineapple sage is cold hardy to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, but in warmer climates, its flowers bloom through winter. Some cultivars reach up to 5 feet high. The leaves and flowers are popular ingredients in herbal infusions, as well as in fragrant potpourri.

No matter the cultivar, sage leaves and flowers dry easily for storage and later use. To preserve them, snip 6-to-12-inch branches, then carefully rinse and pat them dry. Tie half a dozen stems together, and hang them in a cool, dry room for about a week. When fully dry, the leaves crumble easily between your fingers, and flower petals feel brittle. For a faster drying method, spread the stems on a baking pan and dry them in the oven at 180 degrees Fahrenheit for two hours. Once completely dry, the leaves are easy to separate. Dried sage leaves and flowers store for up to one year.

Chia Sage

While some grow sage plants for their leaves or flowers, others favor chia sage (S. columbariae) — also referred to simply as “chia” — for its highly nutritious seeds. Chia grows wild in the American Southwest, particularly in coastal regions of Southern California. Because it prefers arid conditions, it’s one of the first plants to repopulate areas ravaged by wildfire. Birds, beneficial insects, and small mammals love to snack on chia’s hydrating, energy-dense seeds.

Indigenous people in the U.S. and Mexico were the first to appreciate chia’s medicinal and nutritional value. They cleaned and roasted the seeds, then added them to porridge or ground them into a paste. A poultice of moistened ground chia seeds treated fevers and infections. Early European settlers adapted these techniques, using chia poultices to treat everything from gunshot wounds to eye infections.

Dried sage is a popular flavoring in many foods, and is typically associated with Thanksgiving. This connection is fitting, as sage lends its distinct flavor best to poultry dishes. Fresh sage also has a place in the kitchen; it brings a mild citrus element to foods.
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Organic local food movements have revived interest in chia’s nutrient-rich properties. The seeds contain an impressive amount of omega-3 fatty acids, as well as protein, fiber, calcium, and other essential minerals. Chia is also a popular ingredient in energy drinks, helping to regulate electrolytes and balance hydration. Toasted chia seeds impart a nutty flavor, and are delicious when sprinkled on salads or combined with other grains to make energy bars.

To collect chia seeds, allow the spiny flower stalks to dry, and then vigorously shake them into a container or paper bag. To prevent seeds falling to the ground, remove the flower heads as soon as their blooms fade. Dry the flower stalks in an open paper bag. After a week or so, gently roll the dried flower heads on a hard surface, releasing the seeds. Harvested chia seeds last 2 to 4 years when stored in an airtight container in a cool, dry environment. Since birds also love chia, save a few seeds to add to feeders in winter and see which species flock to the feast. Better yet, leave a few flower heads on the vine for friendly garden visitors’ enjoyment.

A Medical Marvel

In addition to its long-established culinary tradition, sage’s antimicrobial and antioxidant properties are generating renewed interest. The name Salvia is evidence of the plant’s long history as a remedy for many ailments: Salvia derives from the Latin salveo, meaning “to save or heal.” Ancient Romans used it to treat digestive disorders, oral ailments, and skin wounds. Native Americans traditionally used it in medicine and healing ceremonies. Today, herbalists laud sage’s wide-ranging benefits, and modern medical practitioners are taking note. Recent evidence shows that sage has high nutritional and medicinal value.

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Nutritional studies show impressive amounts of vitamins A and K and beta carotene, as well as potassium, magnesium, and folate in common sage leaves. Recent studies conducted by the National Institutes of Health also point to culinary sage’s cognitive benefits, including improved memory and mental performance. Further ongoing research conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information indicates that taking common sage extract, in combination with improving other healthy dietary habits, positively affects cholesterol levels over time.

When steeped in boiling water, sage tea may help with digestive disorders. Sage tea also stimulates the liver and kidneys, which helps flush toxins out of the body. Women often drink sage tea to help relieve menstrual pain and hot flashes during menopause. Of course, always check with your doctor to determine the best approach before adding herbal supplements to your diet.

Sage in Aromatherapy

Sage oil extract offers yet another way to enjoy this generous herb. Diffused oils are fundamental in aromatherapy to produce a calm atmosphere and reduce stress. Aromatherapy works by triggering olfactory senses that arouse pleasure in the brain. To achieve this effect, essential oils are either applied topically to skin, or mixed with water and dispersed into the air through a heat diffuser. Clary sage (S. sclarea) is the most common sage extract used in aromatherapy.

The benefits of aromatherapy are largely anecdotal. However, we know that the olfactory bulb in our brains works in tandem with the hippocampus and amygdala, the regions that regulate emotion and memory. It’s no wonder that the mere mention of sage may conjure memories of holiday meals or hearth fires. When used in aromatherapy, sage oil stimulates memory and imparts cleansing properties to the surrounding air. It also helps relieve stress, and provides a sense of relaxation and well-being.

Burning sage, or “smudging” as it’s traditionally known, is an ancient spiritual ritual. It’s often connected with Native American peoples, though not all tribes participate in this practice. Smudging is globally practiced by a number of different cultures.
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White sage (S. apiana), also known as bee sage or sacred sage, lends itself to spiritual ceremonies. Some Native Americans, including the Ojibwe, Shoshone, and Anishinaabe, burned it to cleanse the air, bless their people, and sanctify objects and places. Burning sage, or “smudging,” is regaining popularity amongst herbalists, practitioners of meditation, and lay healers. Smudging calls forth a positive environment, soothes stress, and may even improve recall. Be mindful before harvesting or smudging; plant conservationists are concerned about overharvesting and Native American communities are concerned about overharvesting and cultural appropriation.

Wildly Advantageous

Like many plants adopted for wide-ranging human use, sage retains immense value for wildlife. Common names usually derive from a plant’s appearance or purpose. Bee sage lives up to its name: Native bees flock to its floral nectar in springtime, foraging past the gray-white leaves favored by humans.

Meadow sages grow wild throughout Mexico, the U.S., and into parts of Canada. Birds, bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds rely on the species’ long-blooming, nectar-rich flowers for energy when other flowers fade. Meadow sages are highly adaptable and easily grown as either annuals or perennials in most Zones. There’s undoubtedly a colorful choice for every garden.

Salvias complement cottage gardens and butterfly gardens throughout the growing season. Wood sage (Salvia x sylvestris ‘May Night’) is an early bloomer whose bluish-purple inflorescences pair as easily with roses as milkweed. It thrives in Zones 4 through 8, reaching 1 to 2 feet high. ‘May Night’ is a garden workhorse, tolerating tough soil and sun to part shade. Cut back faded flowers after first flush, and they’ll return for a second show. It fits neatly between ground covers and taller blooms, drawing bumblebees, native bees, and monarch butterflies to its sweet nectar.

Mexican bush sage (S. leucantha) fills open swaths of dry areas, creating a 3-foot-tall profusion of purple blooms. It prefers the warmer weather in Zones 8 through 10, but blooms until frost in cooler areas.

Don’t forget the flowers! The small purple blooms sage brings in the summer can be used to decorate desserts, steeped into a fresh tea, or added to summer salads.
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Though most Salvias prefer full sun, some live to brighten shady spots. S. involucrata ‘Mulberry Jam,’ also known as rosebud sage, has tubular clusters of long-blooming, bright-pink flora that open perfectly for hummingbirds. It grows at woodland edges in Zones 7 through 11, reaching nearly 5 feet high.

In Zones 10 and 11, scarlet sage (S. splendens) and tropical sage (S. coccinea), beloved by hummingbirds, grow easily as annuals. Gardeners in Zones 5b through 9 may wish to consider the very popular ‘Furman’s Red’ autumn sage (S. greggii ‘Furman’s Red’), or the striking and drought-tolerant ‘Ultra Violet’ hybrid sage (S. lycioides x greggii ‘Ultra Violet’). A light side-dressing with shredded wood mulch will stretch survival a little longer into cold weather.

Offering a final treat for migrating birds, solitary bees, and other garden visitors goes a long way in sustaining our relationship with nature. Try planting a variety of wild meadow sages, as well as ornamental and edible garden cultivars, for season-long enjoyment. Not only does a range of sage species offer vital sustenance for pollinators, it may also inspire us to experiment with the tableau of flavors, scents, and colors this diverse genus promises. Salvia’s combined beauty and utility benefits humans and wildlife alike. Not only do we get to enjoy the colorful, lively activity in our gardens, we also provide support for our environment, and by extension, our own well-being.

Brenda Lynn is a freelance writer, Master Gardener, and beekeeper in northern Virginia.

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