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Sage Varieties: Growing Tips and Recipes

By Caleb Melchior
August/September 2010
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Sage-Infused Recipes

• Toasted Brie and Sage Sandwich
• Salmon with Lemon and Sage
• Oyster Mushroom Sauté with Sage
• Carrots in Sage and Rosemary Broth 
• Online Exclusive Recipe: 
Pasta with Cream, Ham, Mushrooms and Sage 

• Check out our Culinary Sage Chart, which organizes our sage cultivars by color, unusual qualities and zone.

The genus Salvia contains a staggering range of species suitable for every garden use under the sun—and in the shade. But for cooking, none can rival common garden sage (Salvia officinalis) and its cultivars. Sage has long been valued for its contributions to the cook’s palette of flavors. Its robust piney aroma and earthy flavor complement many ingredients. Sage is also an attractive garden plant, particularly in its fancy-leaved forms. Plus, it prospers under a wide range of conditions and adds a striking bold texture to mixed plantings. 

Growing Info For Sage

• Light: Full sun
• Height: 18 to 24 inches
• Width: 24 to 36 inches
• Bloom time: Late spring, although valued most for its evergreen foliage.
• Soil: Well-drained, tolerant of a wide range of soil types.

What’s the Difference Between Types of Sage?

S. officinalis varies widely in the size and shape of its leaves. Sharp-eyed herbalists have spotted numerous selections with unusual leaves, taken cuttings and propagated the resulting plants so that we can all enjoy them. ‘Berggarten’ is a vigorous clone with large, broad leaves and a strong flavor. It’s probably the most productive variety for home herb gardens. ‘Curly’ was selected by Alice Doyle of Log House Plants in Cottage Grove, Oregon, from a wild population in Crete. Its wrinkled and puckered leaves give the plant a highly textured appearance. ‘Holt’s Mammoth’ has large leaves, although they’re often not as large as those of ‘Berggarten’. Dwarf forms of S. officinalis circulate under a variety of names, including ‘Compacta’, ‘Dwarf’, ‘Minima’, ‘Nana’ and ‘Robert Grim’. In general, these plants will reach 8 to 12 inches in height and width, making them significantly smaller than the species. Use them in containers or in-ground plantings where space is tight. Strains chosen for heavy production and good performance under greenhouse conditions are sometimes available, but these are usually of little interest to home gardeners.

Numerous forms have been selected for colored foliage. ‘Icterina’ has strong golden-green variegation surrounding a cucumber-green splash. It’s hearty and vigorous in growth. ‘Purpurascens’ (‘Purpurea’) is another strong grower, this time with dark leaves that have a dusky sheen of purple, green and indigo. ‘Rainbow’ is a variegated version of ‘Purpurascens’. Its purple leaves have splotches of cream and rose. ‘Tricolor’ is the more common multicolored form, with splashes of lilac, cream and green. It’s slow-growing and resents crowding, wet and cold.

Besides these varieties with unusual leaf colors, clones with more typical variegation of white, cream or pale green have recently become available. ‘La Crema’ is a variegated sport from ‘Berggarten’. Its leaves have a thick cream border. It’s vigorous and showy, making it an excellent choice for planting in the ground or in containers. ‘Variegated Woodcote’ has light green leaves with a darker splotch in the center. ‘White Edge’ has an attractive pattern of cream splashes on typical soft green leaves.

‘Berggarten’, ‘Icterina’ and ‘Purpurascens’ are the easiest to find of the fancy-leaved sages. Look for them at your favorite local nursery. The other forms are rarer—check herb society sales and online herb specialists.  

Garden Design with Sage

Salvia officinalis is admirably ornamental in its typical grey-green form. It can be trained into sculpted mounds for a controlled appearance, or left to sprawl in irregular clumps. The leaves have a lightly pebbled surface, which makes them look fuzzy. This soft texture combined with a muted flower color (pastel shades of blue and lilac-pink) gives the plants a soft appearance. Garden visitors will want to stroke them. If they do, they’ll be pleased at the plants’ robust fragrance. 

Varieties with unusual leaf sizes, shapes and colors have even more garden potential. ‘Berggarten’ and ‘Mammoth’, with their broader leaves, have a blockier presence and make a great foil to frilly-leaved companions. The leaves of ‘Curly’ have wavy edges that lend a strong texture, making it stand out in mixed plantings. It has the character to make an excellent solo pot specimen. The dwarf forms’ tighter growth habit makes them well-suited to plantings in which forms must be strongly defined, such as parterres and knot gardens.    

The colored-leaf selections have strong visual impact. Gold and green ‘Icterina’ complements strong blues—it would make an excellent companion for bush delphiniums. The purple-washed leaves of ‘Purpurascens’ are sensational with soft yellows. Try it with Oenothera ‘Shimmer’, a new evening primrose from Colorado with lemon-colored flowers and silvery leaves. ‘La Crema’ and ‘White Edge’ would look lovely as an edging around cream-colored roses. Their strong aroma might also help repel insects.     

S. officinalis and its selections are useful in containers. Make sure they don’t stay wet, or they’ll rot. Good air circulation is essential, as well—they dislike being crowded. ‘Icterina’ and ‘Purpurascens’ are often used in mixed edible containers. They look good through both cold and warm seasons. ‘Tricolor’ looks especially fine when grown as a specimen in a terracotta pot—growing solo ensures that it won’t be overwhelmed by over-vigorous companions. 

A Cook’s Guide to Sage

Unlike the green sawdust Aunt Mabel used to sprinkle over her turkey, there’s more to sage’s flavor profile than dusty and musty. Fresh sage is deep, robust and earthy. To balance these base notes, fresh sage also has a lively zing that you won’t find in any powder.   

This lively—almost lemony—flavor component is most obvious in spring, while the leaves are still very young. Strengthen this taste by combining sage with mint. You can also keep sage from becoming drab by combining it with lemon. As summer approaches and sage’s flavor becomes more robust, try combining it with a multitude of different herbs. Its earthiness adds depth to herbal blends. Autumn cooking is highly supportive of sage. Its haunting aroma can perfume rich meats and carb-rich dishes. Use it to flavor slow-braised pork or starchy cubes of roasted squash.     

Sage can easily become overwhelming, so start with a small amount and slowly increase the quantity to taste. The leaves can be rough and chewy, particularly later in the year, so mince them finely. If you want the flavor of sage without its presence in the final result, add sprigs of it to whatever you’re cooking and remove them before serving. 

Tips for Growing Sage

Salvia officinalis is an easygoing plant with few demands. But, if you want it to thrive, give it what it needs. At least six hours of full sun per day are essential. Soil should be well-drained, but not constantly dry. Avoid over-rich soil, or you’ll have lush growth at the expense of flavor. That’s it.

Typical green-leaved S. officinalis is winter-hardy in Zones 5 to 9. The colored-leaf forms are weaker. Plant them high and dry for best results. Even under the best of conditions, they’re not reliably winter-hardy in areas north of Zone 7. Treat them as annuals and be happily surprised if they return for an encore performance. Don’t mulch them with anything moist and composty—they’ll rot. Also, make sure that they’re not crowded—most (particularly ‘Tricolor’) need impeccable air circulation and resent being jostled by their neighbors.

Sage is evergreen in most of its hardiness range, although its leaves will be damaged by extended periods of extreme cold. Wait until hard frosts pass in spring before trimming your sage. Most salvias—including S. officinalis—can be severely damaged by late frosts if they’re cut back early and start into growth while it’s still cold. 

Once the weather warms in spring, sages will put forth a new crop of leaves. These will have the best flavor of the entire year. Their flavor intensifies until flowering starts, usually in late spring. After flowering, sage’s leaves toughen. To stimulate new growth, cut the plant back by one-third. Fertilize lightly with an organic fertilizer, such as fish emulsion, after pruning.

Sage can be grown from seed, but the easiest way to increase your stock is by taking cuttings. Cuttings are the only way to maintain specific clones (you won’t get variegated seedlings from seeds taken from a variegated plant). Since sage plants often become woody and start to die out in spots as they age, it’s a good idea to take cuttings and start new plants every two or three years—especially because young plants are more vigorous and produce better yields than older plants.

Taking cuttings is as simple as it sounds: cut off a three-inch shoot of S. officinalis, strip off the lower leaves; stick the cutting into sterile growing medium; keep moist and warm for the next few weeks; and wait for roots and new growth to appear. Once your plants have rooted, prepare them for life outdoors by leaving them in a cold frame or sheltered porch for a few days to moderate the temperature change between inside and out. Then look forward to cooking with your beautiful sage.

 


Caleb Melchior studies landscape architecture at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas. When not working in the design studio, he writes about food and works in the garden.

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