There are about 900 different varieties of sage (Salvia). These lants—members of the mint family—offer interesting and diverse aromas, textures, and colors. Their flowers produce abundant nectar, making them a favorite destination of bees. Many varieties, such as the cardinal and painted sage, serve as picturesque ornamentals and combine well with other garden plants. Some varieties boast medicinal and culinary uses.
The genus name Salvia is derived from the Latin verb Salvere, which means “to heal,” “to be saved,” or “to be well.” This makes a strong statement about the curative properties of sage. The herb has long been associated with medicinal value, good health, and long life. An old Arabian proverb asks, “How can a man die who has sage in his garden?” Sage has also been used as a general tonic for fatigue and a lack of concentration.
Aroma and Flavoring
Some varieties possess an aromatic fresh, fruity scent like citrus and pineapple, while others reflect the aroma of members of the mint family such as lavender, oregano, or rosemary.
Many species of sage grow in the western United States where they’re often used locally for flavoring foods and beverages. More than a few sport bright red or yellow flowers that are especially attractive to hummingbirds.
The common garden sage, Salvia officinalis, is the hardiest and most widely used of the sage plants. This evergreen, highly aromatic, and perennial shrub grows to about two feet high and does well in dry, sunny climates when planted in well-drained soil. The leaves appear rough-textured, grey-green in color, and have a camphor-like aroma. The attractive violet-blue flowers bloom throughout the summer. It’s native to the Mediterranean region, especially the Baltic areas, and was introduced into North America during the seventeenth century.
Common sage leaves—either fresh or dried—are a very popular culinary herb used in meat and cheese dishes, beans, and vegetarian entrées. The leaves also appear in vegetable salads, salad dressings, and fruit salads. Some chefs include the flowers as well. For cooking purposes, blue sage or Spanish sage can be substituted for the common garden variety. When partnered with onion, sage helps create a great stuffing. Dried sage leaves are a common ingredient of potpourris.
Sage seeds may be ground and used in baking while the aromatic foliage flavors teas. It also can be found in shampoos, perfumes, soaps, toothpaste, and other personal cosmetics.
Sage is known to possess astringent, antiseptic, antispasmodic and antibacterial properties. Years ago, it was used medicinally in ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome. The leaves treated wounds, sores, and ulcers. It served as a common mouthwash for sore mouths, inflammation of the throat, hoarseness, and cough. Even today, sage extracts are used in many of the same ways. For example, infusions of sage leaves are found in gargles or mouthwashes created to aid inflamed sore throats, mouth ulcers, and gum diseases. About three drops in 100 milliliters of water make an effective gargle.
A tea created from sage is useful as an aid to digestion. In Europe it’s commonly used for an upset stomach and gastrointestinal complaints and also to treat excessive perspiration. Its anti-secretory properties make it effective in reducing sweat secretion. This has increased the popularity of sage for the treatment of hot flashes and night sweats associated with menopause.
Since sage is rich in tannins, phenolic acids, and flavonoids, it possesses anti-inflammatory properties and is useful for the treatment of gingivitis and inflammation of the mucous membranes of the mouth and throat. About five grams of dried leaves or two tea bags are typically used to make a tea for internal use.
Rosemary and sage have very different foliage shape and texture, and possess differing aromas and flavors. But, they have a similar phytochemistry. Both are rich in phenolic diterpenoid compounds such as carnosol, carnosinic acid, and rosmanol, as well as the triterpenoid ursolic acid. These compounds provide a strong antioxidant effect and inhibit tumors. They can arrest tumor cell replication and stimulate the detoxification of cancer causing substances.
Other Useful Varieties
Clary sage, a hairy aromatic plant with a vanilla aroma, has been used in lotions to treat wounds and inflammation of the eye. Its oil is popular in aromatherapy. Mexican chia is a sage plant found in Latin America where its seeds help create a refreshing drink known by the same name. The dried seeds are also ground into meal for baking or pressed to make oil.
While common sage is safe in normal use, its oil can be toxic when introduced in large amounts due to its content of thujone. The oil should not be used internally for medicinal use by pregnant women because it’s reported to trigger abortion. It can also affect the menstrual cycle. In large amounts—or chronic use of smaller amounts—the oil of sage may also cause dizziness, rapid heartbeat, and provoke epileptic seizures. However, the oil from Spanish sage may be safely used in food preparations since it is virtually free of thujone.