You might think of sage as a seasoning for roast chicken or a lyric in a Simon & Garfunkel tune, but several sage species are grown for their visual appeal alone. Take, for example, the Chia Pet Poop Emoji, on which Salvia hispanica seeds sprout to make delightful green "hair." (Come on. Who really wants to grow "hair" on...well, poop? Can't we just be happy with sheep, The Golden Girls, and Bob Ross Chia Pets?
Okay, maybe we started off on the wrong foot, with an unfortunate example. But really, how much more versatile can the Salvias be? Sage has a long history as a medicinal plant. It plays an important role in cleansing ceremonies. It's a must-have culinary herb, and for gardeners, sage is an attractive, hardy aromatic perennial that lets you get up close and personal with lazy bumblebees, busy hummingbirds, and thirsty European honeybees.
Salvia in the garden
Sage plants are only a few of more than 950 species in the Salvia genus. Let's take a look at three species that best represent the sages, and find out how easy they are to grow. All are woody, shrub-like perennials in the mint family (Lamiaceae) known for their adaptability to various growing conditions, particularly poor soils, and drought. All attract butterflies and bees. And honeybees make delicious and commercially-valuable honey from sage nectar regardless of the species.
- Common sage
- Culinary sage
- Garden sage
"Officinalis" is a specific epithet used to indicate that the plant is the species within its genus most often used for medicinal purposes. This is the stuff you'll find in your grocery store's spice display and, if you're into medicinal plants, in your herbal stash. It's not the traditional sage wrapped in bundles for smudging (cleansing with smoke) but it's often used as a stand-in. In spite of its utility; whether burned, mixed with potpourri, or seasoning your Thanksgiving stuffing, common sage leaves are extremely fragrant with a smoky, mildly minty aroma.
S. officinalis holds its own in ornamental beds with its silvery, green-gray ovate leaves (up to 4" long and 3/4" wide) and clusters of two-lipped lilac flowers on upright racemes. Common sage grows up to 3.5' tall and wide in an upward habit from a woody base, and blooms from late May to early July. The leaves, which grow in alternating, opposite pairs, are soft to the touch and tend to glow just a bit when the light hits them just right.
Common sage is native to the Mediterranean and North Africa and is an herbaceous perennial in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 through 8.
- Sapphire sage
- Mealycup sage
- Mealy blue sage
- Mealy sage
- Blue sage
Growing between 12" to 24" tall with a 12" spread, sapphire sage is a more compact variety suitable for large pots. It's also a popular ground cover and border plant. Sapphire sage has a similar growth habit and leaf shape as common sage, but its flowers are eye-popping indigo blue. Sapphire sage also tends to have longer, more densely-blooming racemes, bumping up the plant's potential height to 3'.
An herbaceous perennial in USDA Hardiness Zones 8 through 10, S. farinacea is native to arid northern Mexico and Texas.
- Scarlet sage
- Blood sage
- Red sage
- Indian fire
- Hummingbird sage
Most herbs in the mint family tend to have lilac or blue blooms. Salvia coccinea steps outside of the "usual" not only with its bright red flowers but with its broad, arrow-shaped foliage. Scarlet sage's flowers are elongated and tube-like, with protruding stamens and anthers. While there are fewer blossoms on its racemes, the vivid colors and more "feral" look of S. coccinea make it a great selection to mix in with other sage species. It's also the most diminutive of our three featured species, growing up to 2" tall and wide.
Scarlet sage is one of the most adaptable varieties. Its native range extends from Texas to the Mid-Atlantic coast, and it tolerates shade and moist soils where other popular sage species need full sun and thrive best in dryer soils. A tender perennial in USDA Hardiness Zones 8 through 10, it grows quickly enough to be treated as an annual elsewhere. Salvia coccinea does well in large containers.
Other interesting Salvia species
Here are a few more popular sage species that appear in The National Gardening Association's list of top 25 favorites:
- Salvia apiana: ("White sage," "bee sage," "California sage," and "sacred sage") Traditional type used to make "smudge sticks."
- Salvia microphylla: ("Hot lips sage") Especially drought-resistant, bicolored sage with red and white blooms.
- Salvia sclarea: ("Cleary sage") "Blooms" are actually lilac bracts growing in opposite pairs on terminal spikes. Invasive in some states.
- Salvia mexicana var. "Limelight' (Lolly Jackson Salvia; a Mexican sage variant) Tube-shaped indigo blooms and fine, yellow-green foliage.
- Salvia uliginosa: (Bog sage) A mostly wild-form sage that tolerates moist soils but has an unpleasant fragrance.
Growing Salvia from seed
Many woody herbs are a challenge to start from seed. Sage isn't one of them. While you might want to fold them in a wet paper towel overnight at room temperature, other seed treatments aren't necessary when growing salvia from seed. Start them indoors 6 to 8 weeks prior to the last frost, or outside when the soil is consistently between 65°F and 70°F. Use a sterile seedling mix for indoor starts with some sand or Perlite mixed in, and consider using a heat mat, fluorescent lights, and a channeled tray for bottom-watering.
- Germination period: 10 to 21 days
- Seed depth: Twice the width of the seed; typically 1/8" deep
- Seed spacing: Sow, thin, or transplant at least 18" apart. Provide more space in humid climates or consistently moist beds.
Remember, most sage species require full sun, and will become leggy even in partial shade. Scarlet sage is an exception, but not the only one; always refer to your seed packet when you're planning a garden with Salvia.
We recommend preparing your soil with plenty of well-aged compost. If your soil has a high clay content, add some gardening sand. Slightly acidic soil chemistry is preferred, so shoot for a pH between 5.5 and 6.5.
Once your seedlings have three pairs of true leaves, pinch off the top pair before transplanting. Once the starts are showing signs of "taking off," continue pinching as you see fit to encourage branching. You'll enjoy the aroma of fresh-crushed sage on your fingers!
Maintenance, pests, and diseases
Sage and other Salvia are fairly resistant to diseases and pests. Most of sage's problems are the result of improper watering, poor air circulation, and lack of sunlight. Don't overcrowd your plants, and water at ground-level whenever possible. Keep a 2" minimum radius "mulch-free zone" around the base of your Salvia, and if you do water overhead, do it early in the day so the sun's heat will dry up excess moisture. Keep an eye out for root rot, leaf spot, and powdery mildew, and remove and destroy any diseased leaves and stems.
Here are some of the bugs that love sage, but are easily defeated with family-safe insecticidal soaps or a good blast with the garden hose:
Deer aren't interested in most sage species, and they won't touch scarlet sage at all (Of course, now that we've said that...).
Aside from a little pinching here and there with young plants, you'll want to let your perennial sage plants grow as much as possible in their first year. Early the next spring, cut them down to within 6" of the soil surface to encourage bushy, tender new growth. We don't recommend cutting sage back in the fall.
All the Salvias are light feeders, and too much nitrogen will cause them to sprawl sideways and become spindly. Unless you imported your garden soil from Bikini Atoll (in which case we hope you said "hi" Godzilla for us) you should refrain from adding too many extra nutrients. If you've already added well-aged compost to your new Salvia beds, any wood-based mulch you use around your plants will break down and sufficiently replenish the soil.
Harvesting and using sage
Harvest sage leaves for culinary or therapeutic use before the flowering period begins. Use young pinched leaves for fresh herbs, or trim leafy stems and hang them, inverted, in a dry, well-ventilated area. Store the dried leaves whole in an airtight container until you're ready to crush and use them.
Salvia is derived from the Latin Salveo, meaning "healing" and "salvation." Sage, as a medicinal herb, is traditionally used to treat the following:
- Loss of appetite
- Memory issues
- Bowel inflammation
- Skin disorders
- Excessive perspiration
Sage contains rosmarinic acid, an antioxidant and antibacterial most notably found in rosemary plants. Sage is used in China and India to stave off dementia and other cognitive disorders, and legitimate scientific studies support these anecdotal claims.
The wise choice for sourcing fresh Salvia seeds
The most vibrant, healthy plants grow from the best genetics and quality seeds. Our family business is small enough that we can meet our increasing demand without resorting to replenish our supply with low-quality producers. We're large enough to invest in a climate-controlled seed storage system to ensure the highest seed viability we can achieve. Still, we only order quantities we can expect to sell in a single season. With age comes wisdom, they say, and we're proud of our history serving our customers.
But we still like to make poop jokes once in a while, so there's that.