Sage (salvia officinalis)

An evergreen shrub native to the Mediterranean region, Salvia officinalis bears oval-shaped silvery green leaves with a velvety texture and white, pink, or violet flowers. The botanical name Salvia derives from the Latin salvere, meaning “to save,” a reference to the herb’s reputation as a powerful healer. In medieval England, people added sage to ale as a toast to good health. The Chinese held sage in such high esteem that they traded it for black tea (Camellia sinensis).

The genus Salvia includes many other interesting and useful species, including blue sage (S. clevelandii), an evergreen shrub that bears wrinkled aromatic leaves and spikes of blue-violet flowers; diviner’s sage (S. divinorum), which has large green leaves, white flowers, and psychoactive properties; Greek sage (S. fruticosa), which bears lavender-scented leaves with downy undersides and mauve to pink flowers; narrow-leaved sage or Spanish sage (S. lavandulifolia), an evergreen perennial with hairy stems bearing wrinkled gray lavender-scented leaves; Chinese sage, or red sage (S. miltiorrhiza), a popular Chinese medicinal herb that has red roots and bears purple flowers; and painted sage (S. viridis), which has erect stems and bears soft leaves and small pink or purple flowers. Many of these species and their cultivars are beautiful and useful garden plants.


Plant profile

Common Names: Garden Sage, Sage

Description: Woody-stemmed shrub, up to 30-inches tall; opposite gray-green velvety leaves; spikes of purple-blue flowers; aromatic

Hardiness: To Zone 4

Family: Lamiaceae

Flowering: Early summer

Parts Used: Leaves

Range/Habitat: Native to the Mediterranean region

Culinary use

Sage tastes lemony, camphorlike, and pleasantly bitter. Add the young leaves to salads, omelets, fritters, soups, breads, pasta dishes, cheeses, and meats (especially pork and poultry). Sage also partners well with beans, artichokes, tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, carrots, squash, corn, Brussels sprouts, and cabbage. For a unique and tasty appetizer or accompaniment for potatoes, dust larger sage leaves with flour, then fry them in ¼ inch of hot oil for about 30 seconds, until crispy. Sage leaves and flowers can also be candied.

Because sage has strong antioxidant and antibacterial properties, people traditionally added it to sausage and other meats as a preservative and flavoring. Commercial beverage-makers add sage oil to both nonalcoholic and alcoholic beverages, including vermouth and bitters.

Medicinal use

Salvia officinalis has antimicrobial properties and contains volatile oils that help soothe mucous membranes. The herb is a classic remedy for sore throats, coughs, and colds. Herbal practitioners suggest drinking sage leaf tea or using it as a gargle to treat laryngitis, pharyngitis, tonsillitis, gingivitis, and mouth sores. Sage also seems to relax the stomach and may ease indigestion and flatulence.

One of the traditional uses of this plant is to enhance memory, and a recent small pilot study using Salvia officinalis extract confirmed that it could help in the early stages of illnesses involving cognition. Other studies have shown that sage can help reduce hot flashes and night sweats during menopause. German health authorities recognize the herb as a treatment for excessive perspiration.

To make sage leaf tea, pour 1 cup of hot water over 1 teaspoon of dried (or 2 teaspoons of fresh) sage leaves. Steep for 10 minutes, then strain. Drink, or use the tea as a gargle.

Caution: Do not use sage in therapeutic amounts if you are pregnant or nursing. (Culinary use is safe.)

Ornamental use

The silvery green leaves of garden sage add a restful accent to the ornamental border and can serve as a beautiful backdrop for orange lilies and day-lilies or red roses. The varieties ‘Aurea’ (compact with gold and green variegated leaves), ‘Purpurea’ (aromatic purple foliage), and ‘Tricolor’ (variegated cream, purple, and green leaves) offer added garden interest.

Other uses

Traditionally used to control excess perspiration, sage is an ingredient in some present-day antiperspirant formulas. Sage also stimulates the skin when used in lotions or bathwater. A sage leaf and lavender infusion makes a soothing, astringent aftershave. Traditionally, women darkened their hair by rinsing it with sage leaf tea.

How to grow it

Sage grows best in fairly rich, well-drained loam in full sun. Mulch the plants to retain moisture during extended hot, dry periods. Where temperatures drop below 0°F, apply winter mulch.

Harvest the leaves as needed for fresh use. To dry sage leaves, snip them from their stems and spread them on cloth or paper in the shade. Store the dried leaves in an airtight container.

Replace or divide the plants every 3 years to encourage vigorous, productive growth. Propagate sage by seed, cuttings (taken in fall and planted in spring), or root division. When dividing sage, replant only the outer, newer root sections.