The question of whether or not to grow sage is pretty cut-and-dry (pun totally intended) because it's got so many uses, and any one of the sage varieties looks gorgeous as a landscape plant.
Beyond its beauty in the garden, sage is a sacred plant, a valued seasoning, and an herb with therapeutic properties. Growing sage from seed is easy and inexpensive, and surplus young plants make meaningful gifts to friends and family.
Sage's Origins and Cultural Heritage
Many sages originated in the Mediterranean and Croatia, while others first appeared 2000 years ago in northwest Arizona before spreading south through the Sonoran desert. Salvia is either derived from the Latin word for health (salvus) or from "saved" (salvere) and indeed it has a long history of treating ailments and protecting people and spaces from evil.
Tea from sage leaves, often mixed with honey or other sweeteners, applied directly to the skin (crushed leaves), or burned as an incense is used to treat the following:
- Sore throats
- Respiratory ailments and colds
- Treat insect bites and repel insects
- Treat mouth sores and tooth infections
Tinctures made from sage leaves have been used to treat eye and skin infections, and sage twigs were used to clean teeth. In Mexico, chewed sage seeds (which are round and relatively large) are used to aid digestion.
The Chinese valued sage tea so highly that one pound of sage was traded for four pounds of their own traditional tea leaves.
Sage in Spiritual Cleansing Ceremonies
Sage has long been used in the Old World and the New as an incense for the purpose of cleansing, due to its strong camphor aroma when it's burned. It's still used today in First Nation ceremonies, and by neo-hippies in an adaptation of cleaning rituals.
Smudging with sage before Native American sweat lodge ceremonies prepares participants for interaction with positive spirits; people who are engaging in sage-burning are instructed to keep their intentions pure.
We heard of a woman who kept losing renters in her downstairs mother-in-law apartment, until one tenant—a personal friend—said, "This place is (expletive) haunted!" At the advice of a third friend, they smudged the apartment with sage and since then, the only nasty entities the tenant encountered was a jerkwad of a boyfriend.
Here's how to cleanse your own digs!
Make Your Own Smudge Sticks: Learn the proper way to bundle herbs for smudging. You'll note that rosemary and lavender are among the herbs sometimes used in ceremonial smudging, due to their pungent smoke.
Sage Burning Ritual: Learn how and when to "smudge" with sage bundles.
Common Types of Sage
There are two main types of sages. True sages are in the enormous Laminacea family, which includes the mints as well as the sages belonging to the salvia genius. Then we have the Asteracea family, which includes the artemisia sages. These are the sages most frequently used in North American aboriginal rituals, though Old World sages have also been adopted since arriving on this side of the Atlantic.
We currently carry three sages in the Salvia family which represent the best of what either family has to offer.
Plant Descriptions: Seed Needs' Favorite Sages
All of the following Salvia sages have showy, trumpet-shaped flowers emerging from terminal spikes, and attract a wide variety of pollinating insects. Hummingbirds are known to visit sage blossoms from time to time, as well.
Beekeepers swear that sage honey is among the best, so if you have a backyard hive you'll want to add a few plants to keep them happy.
Salvia officinalis: Most commonly used as a food seasoning, this is the plant we refer to as "plain ol' sage". It's also known as "Dalmatian sage" and "cooking sage." Its narrow, ovate leaves are covered in tiny hairs, or trichomes, and are lighter in color on their undersides than above.
Here are a few quick facts about true sage:
- A perennial when grown in USDA Zones 5 to 10.
- Native to the Mediterranean and North Africa.
- Upright growth to 2.5 feet tall, and about 2 feet wide.
- Mauve to purple flowers on terminal spikes begin to bloom in early summer.
Common sage is an acceptable substitute for all cleansing rituals and is the primary sage used in herbal medicine.
Salvia farinacea: Commonly known as sapphire sage, blue sage, and mealy cup sage, this ornamental plant bears striking blue to indigo blooms.
- Native to the dry desert plains of Texas, New Mexico, and Old Mexico.
- A winter-hardy but tender perennial in USDA Zones 8 to 10, and as an annual in zones 3 to 7.
- A more compact sage, growing to 2" tall and 1" wide.
Salvia coccinea: Also known as scarlet or red sage, this striking ornamental has supersized (for sage, anyway) bright red flowers on upright spikes. Unlike its cousins, its leaves are shaped like a broad, serrated spearhead. Instead of sage's trademark silvery foliage, S. coccinea's are a bright medium green.
- S. coccinea is native to Mexico, though it's naturalized on all American continents.
- Scarlet sage grows 12 to 24 inches tall and wide.
- Grown as a perennial in USDA Zones 10 and 11, and as an annual elsewhere.
Don't let scarlet sage's cold-avoidant nature scare you off; it's absolutely worth replanting each year, especially next to sapphire sage and other vivid blue or purple ornamentals. It's also closely related to the most potent domestic medicinal varieties.
Growing Sage from Seed is Easy!
We recommend starting sage seeds in peat pots or quart-size pots rather than plastic nursery trays since sage has a deep taproot. You can direct-sow your sage, but since it needs moisture and sunlight to germinate, it's important to make sure it's watered with a fine mist rather than blasted into the soil with manual gardening irrigation. Therefore, you might find it easier to "nurse" your sage seeds.
The following growing tips are geared toward Salvia officinalis and hold true for most of the sages.
Soil Preferences: Plant in well-drained, compost-amended soil. When preparing the planting site, make sure to dig down to about 18" and add a bit of sand if the subsoil is compacted.
Soil pH: Your target soil composition is 5.6 to 7.8; if anything, err on the alkaline end of the spectrum. Sage grows well in natural limestone deposits.
Sunlight Preferences: The sages don't do well in anything but full sun, so pick a spot where it can soak up the rays.
Watering Requirements: Sage is drought-tolerant, and an excellent xeriscape plant. Water your plants deeply and infrequently to encourage its taproot to grow. Bottom-water your seedlings for this reason, but mist unsprouted seeds until they germinate and take hold.
When to Sow: Sow your sage seeds outdoors as soon as all chance of frost has passed, or indoors 4 to 8 weeks before. Transplant your sage when the plant is about 6" tall.
Planting Depth: Don't plant deeper than 1/8" deep. Sage requires sunlight to germinate.
Plant Spacing: Plant sage seeds, or thin seedlings, 12" to 18" apart.
Germination: Sage seeds germinate in 7 to 21 days at a soil temperature of 70°F.
Companion Plants: Sage invigorates tomato growth, and gets along particularly well with carrots and cabbages given that it repels carrot flies and cabbage moths. It doesn't get along with cucumbers or other cucurbits.
Pests and Diseases: Sage is deer, rabbit, and pet resistant, and as long as the plant isn't overwatered, it isn't susceptible to common plant diseases.
Maintenance: Once its established, sage doesn't require a lot of attention. Trim it back by as much as 2/3 in early spring to encourage new growth. When it wilts during the first hard frost, clean up any debris around the plant for the sake of aesthetics, or just say "f* it" and let the soggy leaves act as composting mulch, attracting abandoned old tires and rusty transmissions.
Harvesting Sage: Sage leaves have the best flavor and aroma before the plant flowers, but you can pick leaves anytime. Pinch buds and new leaves from the ends of the stalks to keep your plants compact, or clip whole stems from which you can strip the foliage. Dry sprigs upside-down in a warm, dry, airy spot, or toss loose leaves in a food dehydrator or warm oven on a cookie sheet. Store your stash in an airtight container, or keep fresh leaves in the refrigerator for up to a week.
Cooking with Sage
What better way to add insult to injury among First Nation cultures than to add sage to Thanksgiving stuffing? Indeed, sage has been a traditional ingredient in this holiday favorite.S. officinalis is the best sage for your kitchen garden, and the herb required for the following recipes. If it's been a while since you've cooked with sage, then the term "food coma" has a whole new meaning for you. Wake up! It's time to start living again.
"It is a savory herb, slightly peppery with overtones of camphor. The flavor is astringent but warm. Sage is faintly bitter and its flavor is an assertive one."
A little sage goes a long way, so don't overwhelm your recipes. Sage goes best with oily, fatty meats, or to complement sweet vegetables.
Fettuccine with Brown Butter and Sage: With this Italian dish, Epicurious reminds us that culinary sage is a Mediterranean native. Did you grow butternut squash this season? Throw some in for over-the-top flavor.
Sauteed Carrots with Sage: Here's a fantastic example of sage's relationship with sweet root vegetables. Be sure to use butter, because butter is awesome...and it contains the right kind of fat to bring out sage's best flavor.
Old School Bread Stuffing with Sage: Give thanks for personal blogs and family recipes! This one's from Kate at The Domestic Front.
Sage is often paired with recipes associated with fall and winter, perhaps due to its rich, warm, "cozy" flavor. It's a popular herb for stuffing smoked sausages, seasoning roast poultry, and flavoring well-marbled pork cuts.