Round Robin: How To Use Clary Sage

| August/September 1994

LANSING, New York—During a discussion of cigarettes on National Public Radio, I learned that one of the little-known substances in them is Salvia sclarea. I was dismayed to learn that 1) my dear clary sage was being put into so vile a product as cigarettes and 2) it can, under certain circumstances, cause convulsions in animals. The broadcast didn’t say anything about its effect on people, but the implications aren’t good. Clary sage has been used in medicines for a long time. I know that helpful substances can also be harmful when misused, as in the case of digitalis, but clary sage has also been used for centuries to flavor wine, ale, and beer. The leaves have been dipped in batter and eaten as fritters, boiled and eaten as greens. The essential oil is used in cosmetics and perfume. I find the plant to be not only useful but lovable, and I’m reluctant to think of it as dangerous.

Until my border became too crowded for them to self-sow, I had masses of S. sclarea and the cultivar Turkestanica spreading themselves everywhere and unifying the border with billows of silver-gray, lavender-gray, pale pink, and white. Their rosettes of large, rough, grainy leaves were handsome and pungent, smelling of pine and camphor, and their spikes of hooded flowers combined beautifully with delphinium. I miss both their aspect and their scent and tell myself that I must find a way to make room for them again. We gardeners are as fickle as other mortals—it’s off with the old and on with the new. I’m always so busy trying new plants, I often neglect the old ones.

Sages being a favorite topic of mine, let me bring up a sage question I’ve been trying to solve for a long, long time. During my Mediterranean years in Turkey, Italy, and North Africa, I used to buy bunches of cooking sage in the market. The leaves were white, furry, and of a delicate flavor much superior to that of our western stuffing sage, S. officinalis. I’ve hunted for it in the United States ever since, only once finding it in a Greek delicatessen. One book says that it’s S. triloba and that Mediterranean people gather it in the wild. I’d like to get hold of seed for this super sage. Does anyone know where I might do that?

Another question inspired by the subject of cooking has been on my mind: The bay leaves commonly found in the grocery store are California bay (Umbellularia californica), not Laurus nobilis. I used to grow my own bay, but I’m out of bay trees at the moment so I bought a small jar of “bay leaves” at the store, discovering only when I got home that they were not the bay laurel I was familiar with. I tried them in a stew and decided they were not at all an adequate substitute for L. nobilis.

I’ve found some proper bay leaves in an alternative grocery store, thank goodness, but I’m left wondering. Aren’t there still lots of L. nobilis trees all over the Middle East? Have some large herb and spice companies been using California bay for years, and I just never noticed? Do they not agree with me about the taste?

If you have grown real laurel and you live in the North, you know that during their winters indoors the potted trees almost inevitably get scale. I used to swab my huge specimen with cotton dipped in alcohol, thus getting it through the hard months in fairly good shape. Outdoors in the summer, it was always clean and healthy.

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