The Venerable Sage

The common garden sage is a respected herb of long standing. It is associated with wisdom and longevity, and could even be considered the inspiration for Star Trek’s Vulcan greeting, “Live long and prosper.” For that is the nature of a sage plant.

But let’s not confuse garden sage – Salvia officinalis – with the wild sagebrush of the American west, Artemisia tridentata. While they’re both called sage in English, they are completely different species. Sagebrush leaves are fairly thin and toothy at the leaf tip. Adding to the confusion are several other species of wild Salvias growing out west, especially in California.

As for our official sage of the garden and herbal apothecary, we see that the word Salvia is related to the Latin salvus, meaning “safe”. This nurturing herb offers remedy for body, mind and also spirit.

A simple cup of sage tea gives gentle relief for mild anxiety, the occasional “down” feeling, PMS, and menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats. Sage tea can be used as a gargle for sore throat and laryngitis, and as a mouthwash for thrush – do not sweeten. Nursing mothers use sage tea to dry up breast milk when weaning her baby. However, you should avoid sage tea if you are pregnant or have high blood pressure.

Also, if you feel your depression has become chronic or severe, do not hesitate to speak to another person you consider venerable and wise, that is, sage, who can guide you to healthy options, because there is no reason to have to work it out alone.

To make sage tea, place 1 rounded teaspoon sage leaf (fresh or dried) in a teapot, pour in 1 pint boiling water, and steep for about 10 minutes; strain into cup and serve lightly sweetened if desired.

The natural volatile oils in sage leaf are antiseptic and kill bacteria and fungus. A strong tea can be used to make a household wash water for counters, doorknobs, and so on where little kids may not have washed their hands.

Never use sage essential oil on the skin without properly diluting in a carrier oil first, and NEVER take it internally. Essential oils have many clinical, therapeutic and even industrial uses, but taking them internally is a big leap from using them as aromatherapy or mopping floors or wiping down the house when everyone has a cold. If you’re using sage essential oil for cleaning, wear gloves.

An easy recipe for a fragrant aftershave or bath splash goes like this: Take a combination of fresh or dried sage and lavender leaves, and fill a 1-pint jar half full with them. Next, pour in prepared witch hazel lotion and fill the jar. Cover with parchment or plastic, then the lid. Infuse for 2 weeks before using. Label and date the contents, including the phrase Do Not Drink!

We love sage in the kitchen, it flavors many of our favorite dishes. Breakfast sausage wouldn’t be the same without a hearty pinch of rubbed sage in the seasoning blend. And some people just wouldn’t be happy without sage-y bread stuffing in a roast turkey. Sage is delicious and appropriate with rich foods such as pork and poultry. It is fabulous tossed onto a pan of oven-roasted root vegetables such as parsnips, carrots and rutabagas. You can even use a sturdy branch as a basting brush for grilled foods. Here is a recipe for a savory herb blend to toss into a simmering pot of beans, yielding a little over 2 cups.

Greens for Beans Seasoning Blend – combine all ingredients in a bowl, using your hands to mix thoroughly. Use 1 tablespoon seasoning blend for each 2 cups dry beans (which of course must be washed and soaked overnight before cooking). This seasoning blend would also make a good starter for vegetable broth, with the addition of mushrooms.

  • ½ cup each kelp or dulse flakes, and dried nettles

  • 2 tablespoons each garlic granules, marjoram, oregano, sage and savory

  • 1 teaspoon dried ginger root.

Venerable Garden Sage is just one of hundreds of varieties of ornamental plants bearing the name Salvia. Their square stems reveal their relation to other members of the mint family; all mints have square stems but, elementary, not all square-stemmed plants are mints. Salvia flowers are spire-like, giving vertical dimension to annual plantings, and red a common flower color. There are also deep burgundies, white and creamy colors, pinks and even blues. They are often planted en masse to a very striking effect.

Garden sage is a woody perennial that stays green into late fall, and is one of the first herbs to turn green again in the spring. It can grow quite large, perhaps 2-3 feet high as well as wide, if grown in a happy location. Even garden sage comes in several varieties, including purple, golden, variegated, wide-leaved, bumpy leaved, large and small, but plain old sage is the longest-lived and most dependable. It sends out long spikes of lavender-colored flowers which are very charming when cut and placed in tiny bottles, new or old. I have a sage plant that is well over 20 years old, although it is not as vigorous as it used to be. Garden Sage is easy to start from seed, and look quite sage-y even as a seedling.

Biennial Clary Sage, S. sclarea, is deeply and complexly fragrant, with strangely unique flowers. This herb has been used with elderflower to flavor wine. Annual Clary Sage, S. viridis, is also a beautiful addition to the garden, with its pink and purple spikes of shell-like flowers.

Salvia argentea or Silver Sage is similar in form and habit to the biennial Clary, with a large rosette of fuzzy silvery leaves the first year, with the flowering stalk appearing the second year. Both are worth the wait. The plant called White Sage or Bee Sage, S. apiana, is used in bundles as a smudging herb; I have had mediocre success germinating this species, but the plants are very fragrant when you can manage it.

Pineapple sage, S. elegans, is a tall, beautiful edible ornamental with bright red flowers and usually variegated pointed leaves. It really does smell like pineapple and can be used sparingly in relishes and cheese dishes. It is sometimes added to grape jam for an unusual herbal flair. Hummingbirds love this plant!

Even a young sage plant looks wise. Planting one in a permanent setting, perhaps near a sundial, a toad cottage, or your favorite garden gnome, will entice you to spend more time outside, perhaps setting up a nice chair nearby and waiting for our Venerable One to share some of it’s quiet strength with you, helping you to slow down in this increasingly fast-moving world. Get off the merry-go-round and plant some sage!

© 2018 Doreen Shababy

This article is excerpted and adapted from my book, The Wild & Weedy Apothecary, published in  2010 by Llewellyn Publications.