Herb to Know: Pineapple Sage
By Rita Pelczar
• Salvia elegans
• Family: Lamiaceae (Labiatae)
• Tender perennial
It’s a taste of the tropics for temperate gardeners. Just close your eyes and crush a leaf under your nose: the fragrance is unexpected and exotic. What better garnish for a frosty piña colada or glass of iced tea than a fresh sprig of fruit-scented pineapple sage? And beyond its olfactory bouquet, the autumn flowers that burst upon the scene with show-stopping drama deserve a place of prominence in the garden (or in a sunny window, if your growing season is short).
An established plant of pineapple sage makes its appearance in spring as a mass of shoots arising from the crown. The stems are square, a trait common to members of the mint family. The leaves are opposite, 2 to 4 inches long, and slightly downy. The solid green color and neat arrangement of the foliage provide an attractive foil for the showy summer flowers of such herbs as calendula, nasturtium, and tansy, and they blend well with the gray-green leaves of garden sage (Salvia officinalis).
As the season progresses, the stems become somewhat woody at their base. Many lateral branches develop, giving the plant a dense, rounded form. Though the herb is generally listed as hardy to Zone 8 or 9, the roots of pineapple sage overwinter in my Zone 7 garden under 3 to 4 inches of winter mulch, producing a larger clump of shoots each year. By the end of summer, an established plant can reach a height of 5 feet with a nearly equal spread; by size alone, it commands a significant presence in the garden. Where the herb does not overwinter, heights of 3 to 4 feet are more likely.
As in other salvias, the flowers of pineapple sage are tubular with two distinct lips. To say that they are red doesn’t go far enough; they are intensely scarlet. Individual flowers, about an inch long, are borne at the tip of each stem in long clusters called verticillasters. The blossoms begin opening from the bottom of each cluster; the unopened buds at the top droop delicately as they wait their turn to unfold.
The lateness of flowering is a serious drawback for gardeners in cooler climates where early frost usually precludes the flower show, at least in the garden. However, if the entire plant is brought indoors before it is nipped by the cold, it will bloom for quite a while in a sunny room.
Late flowering can be a bonus to southern gardeners. Just as the season’s show seems to be winding down, pineapple sage explodes into brilliant bloom. In Zone 7, flowering begins at the end of September, continuing through October and sometimes even into November. Some years, the flower display is cut short abruptly by cold weather, but more often pineapple sage can be the indisputable centerpiece of the autumn herb garden.
Because it’s a tender perennial, the way you grow pineapple sage depends on your climate. In the South, it is treated as a perennial, in the North as an annual. Either way, it develops into a graceful mound of fragrant foliage, equally at home in a formal herb garden or a casual herbaceous border. An established plant in the South needs a space about 41/2 feet in diameter, preferably at the rear of a border or in the center of an island bed where it will not obstruct the view of foreground plants. When placing pineapple sage among other ornamental flowers, consider the colors of its fall-blooming neighbors; for example, white or lavender asters might be a better choice than vivid magenta ones. If you grow pineapple sage as an annual, think of it as a foliage plant, as it must be brought indoors before it flowers. To facilitate the transition, you can grow it in a large container. This guarantees a satisfactory root system for it to carry on indoors and minimizes the shock of moving it when its season in the garden is over.
Pineapple sage is easily propagated from stem cuttings rooted in potting soil or a mixture of sand and peat moss (see “Growing Herbs from Stem Cuttings”, February/March 1993). Even in fairly mild climates, it’s a good idea to root a few cuttings late in the summer to grow inside until the following spring, just in case. Pinching the tops of newly rooted cuttings reaps dual benefits: it promotes a bushier plant, and you can use the tasty young leaves to flavor a fruit salad or dessert.
After the last spring frost, set new plants out in a protected location for a few days to harden off, then transplant them into the garden. They perform best in full sun and a well-drained soil. Allow adequate space for the plant to expand into. To cover the bare ground while the pineapple sage is still small, surround it with a fast-growing annual herb such as basil, cilantro, or dill. The purple leaves of Dark Opal basil will contrast dramatically with the soft green leaves of the sage. Toward the end of summer, as the sage needs more room, you can remove the annuals. Another alternative is to plant the area at the base of the pineapple sage with low-growing creeping thyme or oregano. In this case, you don’t need to pull out the creepers when the sage grows out over them; they make a fine little mound around the base.
If you live where pineapple sage can remain in the ground all year, be patient for it to emerge in the spring; it tends to sleep in until the soil is warm. When a plant becomes too large for its site, you can divide it in either spring or fall; spring is a safer bet where its hardiness is borderline.
The first hard frost of fall turns the leaves black. Overnight, the raving beauty of your autumn garden is transformed into a frostbitten hag. At your convenience, cut the stems back to the ground, leaving just enough stubble to mark the plant’s location. Several inches of mulch will moderate the fluctuations in soil temperature over the cold months. Gradually pull the mulch back when the weather starts to warm up in the spring.
Pineapple sage is worth growing simply for its beauty in the garden, but it has additional virtues. Indoors, the scarlet blossoms add their bright color and subtle fragrance to fresh flower arrangements. Cut them freely; buds on the lateral shoots will develop in abundance to produce a steady supply of flowers for your garden. The dried leaves and flowers impart their delicate, fruity bouquet to potpourri–it is hard to use too much. Entire stems can be dried for use in herbal wreaths.
In the kitchen, fruit salads are enhanced by the fruity, piquant flavor of the fresh flowers and leaves. This flavor is very different from that of garden sage; although there is a sagey element, it’s very subtle, and pineapple sage doesn’t substitute for other culinary sages. The flowers add visual sparkle as well. Even without flowers, a fresh leafy stem of pineapple sage is the perfect garnish for tall summer drinks.
Try mixing the minced leaves and flowers in cream cheese for a delightfully fruity spread, or knead a handful or two of chopped leaves into raisin bread dough. Steeping the leaves in hot apple juice and using the juice to make jelly is an easy way to preserve the pineapple sage flavor. The dried leaves can be brewed for a satisfying winter tea; however, the fruity element is lost in drying.
A Sage For All Seasons
Whether grown as an annual, potted plant, or perennial, pineapple sage is an herb worth growing. Visually appealing throughout the summer, it achieves its full glory in the autumn when it blooms. Bruising a leaf to release its unusual perfume as you stroll through the garden is a simple pleasure that should not be missed. Pineapple sage is a must for those who value fragrance in the garden as well as those who strive to capture it indoors.
Rita Pelczar of Chesapeake Beach, Maryland, is a horticulturist and herb gardener by education as well as experience.
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