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

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Salvia officinalis crossed the Atlantic with the colonists and was a staple in Thomas Jefferson’s garden.
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The bright leaves of golden sage sets the stage for a blooming bank of Phlomis russeliana.
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S. o. ‘Tricolor’ mingles with lavender in the garden.
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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.
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Purple sage bursts into bloom.
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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.

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.

By the early eighteenth century, sage had crossed the Atlantic, and it was a staple in many American gardens, including Thomas Jefferson’s. The colonial housewife kept it in her kitchen plot, handy for use not only in food but also in simple cosmetics and as a hair rinse. Sage is still prized for giving dark hair a healthy shine.

The ancient scholars praised the herb’s therapeutic virtues and recommended it for the gamut of human ailments. Indeed, the generic name Salvia is derived from the Latin word salvere, “to save” or “to heal.” Herbalists today still consider sage a versatile medicinal herb. The tea is prescribed to settle stomachs, as an antiseptic mouthwash and gargle, for temporary control of perspiration, to reduce blood glucose levels in diabetics, and to dry up mother’s milk at weaning time. Extracted sage oil, however, should never be ingested. It is used in some perfumes and deodorants, and its antioxidant properties have long been known and used in preserving food, but 30 to 50 percent of the volatile oil consists of a toxic ketone called thujone. This was the ingredient in the original absinthe liqueur which caused hallucinations, psychosis, and convulsions even in moderate drinkers. Cooked in food or infused in tea, sage loses much of its thujone, but pregnant women, nursing mothers, and epileptics should avoid drinking more than 2 cups daily of a strong infusion.

Growing sage

Salvia officinalis is perfectly hardy and trouble-free in much of the country, but is difficult to grow in the hot, humid South, where it is subject to sudden wilt and fungal diseases. “Here today and gone tomorrow,” it is often best treated as an annual. Even in cooler areas, gardeners may inadvertently create unhealthy humid conditions by planting sage alongside herbs that require more frequent watering. It is more likely to survive when planted alone or with gray plants such as santolina and English thyme than with moisture lovers such as mint and basil. We recommend growing sage in well-drained soil in sunny raised beds or large containers, and keeping it on the dry side. This advice holds for northern gardens as well, although if humidity is not a problem, sage will even tolerate a little light shade.

Although cultivars of sage must be propagated vegetatively to preserve their distinctive characteristics, Salvia officinalis may be started from seed indoors in spring. Just press the seeds into moist potting medium, or barely cover them. If you sow the seeds in flats, transplant the seedlings into individual pots as soon as the first pair or two of true leaves develops. Give the seedlings plenty of light and harden them off gradually before moving them to the garden. Allow at least 18 inches between plants. Actually, a single plant will probably supply more than enough leaves for a family: a three-year-old plant may be 3 feet tall and just as broad.

As with most other herbs, harvest no more then a third of the foliage. After the blooming period, we like to cut a few stems back to stimulate new growth at the base of the plant. In the North, cut back old stems by half in spring, but do not prune sage plants after September, as it may stimulate new growth which is then likely to be winter-killed.

Sage may be propagated by stem cuttings or divisions in spring. Rooting the stem cuttings is the way to go if you want a large number of plants; divisions are most easily made using younger, less woody plants. The tendency of the outer stems to sprawl a bit makes them good candidates for layering. Just pin them to the ground, cover this part of the stem with soil, and check back after a month or two.

Other garden sages

Happily, we have discovered cultivars of S. officinalis that are much easier to grow in southern gardens than the species, although most are less hardy in the North. All must be propagated vegetatively. S. o. ‘Nana’, known as narrow-leaf dwarf, or compact sage, is a handsome plant with thick clusters of gray leaves no longer than 11/2 inches. Golden sage (S. o. ‘Icterina’), purple sage (S. o. ‘Purpurascens’ or ‘Purpurea’), and variegated or tricolor sage (S. o. ‘Tricolor’) all have colorful foliage that makes wonderfully showy garnishes. All these cultivars have the same flavor as the species and can be substituted for it in the kitchen, and all are lovely in the garden and make smashing specimen plants when grown in large containers. Unlike many other variegated plants, the variegated sages do not revert in periods of hot or cloudy weather.

S. o. ‘Berggarten’ is a German import that has performed well for us in Texas. The blue-gray leaves are broad and rounded, about 3 inches long. Berggarten grows in a compact mound, making a handsome statement in the garden or in containers. For several years, our Berggarten sage thrived in a large clay container, but extremely heavy rains last spring and summer sent this plant home to its fathers. We anticipate that its replacement will perform well unless we have a repeat of the unusual weather. Our Berggarten sage never bloomed, but in other parts of the country, where it is grown for its large leaves, it produces blue flowers similar to those of S. officinalis.

Another shrubby Mediterranean sage with a hardy growth habit, fine flavor, and striking foliage is S. fruticosa. Quite by accident, in a package of fresh herbs labeled oregano, we found an orphan cutting that a botanist later identified as a cross between S. fruticosa and S. officinalis. We have grown it in a container for two years, and it has dazzled us with striking silver foliage, excellent flavor, and sturdy, spectacular growth habit, even through one of Texas’ roughest summers. We have rooted cuttings to share with grower friends, and we hope this plant will one day find its way into nurseries.

Drying sage

Gardeners probably will want to dry sage for convenience and to use it in blends for gifts. Except for the small-leaved ‘Nana’, we prefer to remove the leaves from the stems before drying. Place them on a shallow tray or wire rack or in a basket lined with paper. In a cool room away from heat or strong light, they will be crispy dry in several days. Stir and turn the leaves at least once daily. Don’t use the oven unless there is a danger of mold, and never dry herbs in a microwave: we find that they lose all their flavor with this method. Store the dried leaves in an airtight container in a cool, dark place. Freezing or refrigerating seems to preserve the flavor best.

Sage in the kitchen

Sage was served as a medicinal tea and as a preservative in foods for many centuries, but it was not widely used as a food flavoring until the seventeenth century. The English found many culinary uses for sage, including stuffing for poultry and pork, but their culinary coup was their famous derby cheese, in which fresh sage leaves are layered in a cheddar-like cheese to create a green marbled effect. Derby is still one of their most popular cheeses. By the late eighteenth century, particularly in England, sage was frequently an ingredient in recipes: meatballs wrapped in sage leaves, battered and fried; sage leaves finely chopped with onion and simmered in a broth for roast pork, goose, or duck. The herb was believed to make the rich food more digestible. A recipe for a claret-steeped seasoning mixture from a cookbook published in 1821 calls for sage, lemon peel, salt, shallot, and cayenne pepper.

The flavors and aromas of the various S. officinalis cultivars differ somewhat, but most have a strong, warm odor with a slightly bitter astringent taste. Camphor is often the initial impression of sage on the nose and tongue.

Fresh sage leaves possess delicate, lightly flavored oils and are a pleasant surprise to palates accustomed only to the dried herb. In the South, cooks can use the fresh leaves nearly all year long, starting in early spring by nipping the tips of young sages when transplanting. In winter, the plants generally don’t freeze all the way to the ground, so one can often brush back the snow and find fresh leaves. Sage in northern gardens may hold its leaves through the winter, but they tend to be tough and tasteless.

When using sage leaves fresh, particularly if they are destined to be chopped but not cooked, remove and discard the stems. Tender green stems will have a chance to soften in dishes that cook a while, but save brown woody ones for dropping onto hot coals for grilling or into the fireplace to scent the air on crisp evenings.

Sage, alone or combined with its herbal best friends, can flavor poultry, meats, sauces, vegetable dishes, and cheese spreads. Don’t be afraid to use fresh sage as the only seasoning, especially in a dish that is cooked quickly so that the robust sage flavor doesn’t pervade and overpower the food. However, combining sage with other herbs allows new and complex tastes to emerge.

Sage has a particular affinity for other pungent, full-bodied herbs of the Mediterranean: bay, rosemary, summer or winter savory, marjoram or oregano, and thyme of all kinds. The combination produces a rich, indefinable flavor in hearty stews and soups that are simmered slowly to mellow the flavors; they’ll give a delicious new twist to your own favorite vegetable or chicken soup as well. Don’t forget the holiday turkey and dressing–you haven’t lived until you’ve tasted these favorites prepared with fresh sage.

 “Sage through the ages” originally appeared in The Herb Companion in 1993. Gwen Barclay and Madalene Hill live, cook, and garden in the central Texas town of Round Top. Gwen is the director of food service at the International Festival Institute, and Madalene is the curator of the public herb gardens.

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