Sage (Salvia officinalis) is one of the most popular culinary herbs in North America. It is an easy-to-grow perennial, whether in a pot by the kitchen door, as part of a formal herb garden, or mixed in with a flower border.
A shrubby evergreen perennial, growing one to three feet tall, culinary sage is hardy In USDA zones 5 to 10, though in colder climates it can be grown as an annual.
Its soft leaves are typically two inches long and a half inch wide and vary in shades of green, grey, purple, or yellow variegation. Its flowers may be white, purple, or bluish and bloom from early to mid-summer, rising on slender spikes 10 to 12 inches above the foliage. Like many strongly scented herbs, sage is in the mint family, Lamiaceae.
Sage prefers full sun and well-drained soil. It is drought tolerant once established and is widely adapted to soil type, growing equally well in rich garden soil or dry, rocky places with low fertility.
Adding sages of a few different colors makes an attractive addition to an herb garden or container planting.
Apart from its value as a garden herb, sage is effective as a border plant, especially if allowed to flower.
Its tidy, evergreen form also makes it effective as edging along pathways or around taller perennials.
Because of its high degree of drought-tolerance, sage is right at home in xeriscapes, which are dry gardens, where it pairs well with ornamental grasses and plants with silver foliage such as wormwood (Artemisia) and lamb's ears (Stachys).
Plant sage in spring, spacing plants 12 to 18 inches apart. Prune back by 1/3 in midsummer after it flowers. In late fall, cover the surrounding soil with a layer of mulch, such as wood chips or dry leaves. Prune to shape in spring, removing dead or untidy growth.
Sage can be grown from cuttings or from seeds started indoors. Plants can also be divided in early spring.
This herb is rarely troubled by pests or diseases, but when grown as a houseplant it can be susceptible to spider mites. To treat, wash infected plants regularly with tepid water.
The common species and several improved varieties are widely available in nurseries, either with the herbs or with the flowering perennials.
- 'Aurea' has golden yellow leaves; USDA zones 6-9
- 'Crispa' has finely curled foliage; USDA zones 4-9
- 'Tricolor' has purple, pink and white patterned leaves; USDA zones 5-10
- 'Beergarten' has broad oval leaves rather than the typical narrow shape; USDA zones 5-9
Harvest and Use
Long regarded as a tonic for mind and body, the name salvia comes from the Latin word 'salvere', which means 'to save' with the connotation 'to be in good health'. Medicinal uses of sage include treatment of colds, coughs, anxiety, and disorders of the stomach and digestive tract.
However, the herb is most often enjoyed in cooking. The leaves can be used either fresh or dried. They are often a flavoring for sausage, stuffing, pasta and vegetable dishes, and are especially good with beans. The flowers are edible as well - use them as a garnish in salads or tempura.
Harvest and Drying
To grow the best leaves for cooking, harvest the new growth often and remove flower stalks as they appear. To dry, clip stalks from the top 1/3 of the plant in spring before flowering begins. Hang upside down in a well-ventilated area until dry or lay out on a baking sheet and place in a warm oven for several hours.
The Ultimate Savory Herb
Being able to harvest sage fresh from the garden and use it in the kitchen is one of the simple luxuries in life. A tiny sprig planted today will yield its flavor-rich leaves for years to come.