Sage Through the Ages: Gardening, Healing and Cooking with Sage

Take a fresh look at a time-honored herb that adds beauty to gardens and pungent freshness to cooking.

| April/May 2001

  • Salvia officinalis crossed the Atlantic with the colonists and was a staple in Thomas Jefferson’s garden.
  • The bright leaves of golden sage sets the stage for a blooming bank of Phlomis russeliana.
  • S. o. ‘Tricolor’ mingles with lavender in the garden.
  • Golden and purple sage share a sunny corner near a staircase in an Oregon garden. Most cultivars of Salvia officinalis are hardy and trouble-free in most regions of the United States.
  • Purple sage bursts into bloom.
  • Golden and purple sage share a sunny corner near a staircase in an Oregon garden. Most cultivars of Salvia officinalis are hardy and trouble-free in most regions of the United States.
    Photographs by Andy Van Hevelingen

Garden sage has a long and honored past. This herb was believed to improve memory and bestow wisdom and long life; some thought it could bring immortality, and it was often planted on graves. One well-known aphorism asks: “Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?”

Given its respected place in history, it’s ironic that sage is so little appreciated in the modern kitchen. All too often, old, bottled dried sage is stuck in a cabinet over the stove and pulled out only when it’s time to stuff the holiday turkey. One little old lady told us, “You know, I’ve had my jar of sage for at least ten years, and it’s still good.” Well, it may be good enough for her purposes, but we know it can’t compare with sage that’s fresh from the garden.

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The genus Salvia comprises more than 800 species, many of them showy and fragrant. Garden sage (S. officinalis), the most widely known and used of the salvias, is an erect perennial shrub with gray-green, pungent, distinctively pebbly leaves on long stems that become woody with age. It produces lovely spikes of lavender to purple flowers in midsummer. Grown easily from seed or cuttings, the species is quite variable, producing a range of leaf and flower hues.



Sage grows wild along the Mediterranean coast. It is found in the Adriatic Coast regions of Croatia and Dalmatia, where the gathering of sage traditionally has been a cottage industry. Dalmatian sage has always been considered of the finest quality and has been traded throughout Europe.

Sage tea was a popular beverage in medieval England and continental Europe. Later, when the spice trade opened, the Chinese became so enamored of sage tea that they would trade Dutch sea captains several pounds of tea for one pound of sage.



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