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Sage — a kitchen gardener’s dream plant

Sage is a powerful antioxidant and antibacterial, so its culinary use probably started out more as a preservative than a flavouring.

Sage is a powerful antioxidant and antibacterial, so its culinary use probably started out more as a preservative than a flavouring.

Sage is a member of the mint family and there are over 750 different varieties of sage scattered across our planet. The sage varieties used as culinary herbs stem from the Mediterranean and Asia Minor and Sage has been grown in Central Europe since the Middle Ages.

Sage is a woody, hardy perennial plant with oblong, woolly, gray-green leaves that are lighter underneath and darker on top. Sage has a tendency to sprawl.

Culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) refers to a small group of the genus Salvia. These are evergreen perennial sub-shrubs with woolly greyish leaves that add an earthy freshness to foods. Spikes of purple/blue flowers appear in mid-summer. It’s useful, good-looking, and easy to grow. It offers a long season of harvest, and holds its flavour well when dried.

This aromatic and slightly bitter herb flavours vinegars, herbal butter, omelets, soups, and poultry stuffings. Fresh sage is sometimes added to salads.

Common Salvia officinalis is undemanding in the garden. For variety and attractiveness, try one of the following —

S. officinalis ‘Tricolor’ doesn’t get as large as S. officinalis, but the variegation of its green, white and pink/purple leaves make it as much an ornamental as a culinary herb.

S. officinalis ‘Purpurescens’ has deep purple young leaves that mature to a burgundy

S. officinalis ‘Aurea’ is a compact grower with soft yellow leaves and purple flowers.

PROPAGATION

Sage is grown from seed. They can be directly seeded into your garden, or started indoors for transplanting later. Start them indoors six weeks before the last frost. If planting outdoors, sow them after the soil has begun to warm in the spring.

Sow seeds early in the season and cover lightly with soil. Space seedlings, or thin plants to, 30cm apart. Keep the soil moist when the seedlings are young. When the plants are well established, water only in dry weather.

Sage prefers a sunny area of the garden to grow in, but may require afternoon shade in very warm areas. The soil that Sage and grows in should be rich and moist. Ideally the pH will be slightly acidic to neutral (pH 5.8 to 7.0).

Once established pinch back the tips of young Sage plants when they reach about 15cm; this will encourage more branching and a bigger harvest. Once Sage has flowered dead-head them. Sage likes moist soil so it is important to water them regularly. If you are growing perennial Salvia then cut them back in the autumn to about 5cm in height, and divide them every four years to maintain vigour.

COMPANION PLANTING

Sage attracts butterflies and bees and grows well with rosemary. Sage also helps repel cabbage moths, flea beetles, and carrot flies and improves the flavour of cabbage.

PESTS AND DISEASES

Diseases and pests normally aren’t a big problem with sage. Good drainage will, in most cases, prevent root rot, a disease encouraged by too much moisture for too long around the roots. In humid, poorly ventilated conditions, sage is susceptible to powdery and downy mildews. Here again, prevention is the best control; plant sage where it gets plenty of air circulation, and leave ample space between plants. In cases where mildew does appear, we use horticultural oil or a sulphur spray. Spider mites, thrips, and spittlebugs have a taste for sage. Use organic insecticides like pyrethrum or insecticidal soap or oil to keep these pests under control.

HARVESTING AND STORING

Harvest lightly during the first year to allow this perennial plant to become established. In the following couple of years, you may be able to harvest an entire plant two or three times. When harvesting, leave a few stalks in place to allow the plant to rejuvenate.

If you plan to dry sage for the winter, take your main harvest just before the flowers begin to form. The best leaves come from the last 10cm of a branch. Plan to dry sage fairly rapidly so it doesn’t acquire a musty flavour. One method is to pick off individual leaves and spread them on a screen set in a shaded, warm, dry place. Or you can hang small bunches in a warm, well-ventilated room. Sage is one of those unusual herbs that gets stronger as it dries. Store dried sage in an opaque container with a tight-fitting lid.

HEALING QUALITIES AND ANECDOTES

The name Salvia derives from the Latin ’salveo’, which means to heal. Indeed this herb is highly regarded for its healing qualities. An ancient proverb states, “Why should a man die who has sage in his garden?” The ancient Greeks used it to treat consumption, ulcers and snake bites.

The Romans considered sage to be a sacred herb and concocted an elaborate ceremony just to pick it. A sage gatherer would have to use a special knife (not made of iron as it reacts with the sage), have to have clean clothes and clean feet and a sacrifice of food would have to be made before he could begin. Funny lot those Romans. The Romans would use it for toothpaste and they thought it was good for the brain, senses and memory.

Egyptian women drank sage tea to increase fertility. Hippocrates prescribed it for healing.

The Chinese also were quite partial to this herb and 17th century Dutch merchants found that they would trade one chest of sage leaves for three of their tea.

There is even a strange breed of sage, native to Central America, that is hallucinogenic. Known as Salvia divinorum, which means sacred sage or sage of the diviners, it was used in religious ceremonies by the Central American Indians.

Two more features on Sages / Salvias will be posted here. The first deals with ornamental sages and salvias for the garden and the second with the South Africa’s native sages. These have been used for centuries by indigenous tribes as washes, lotions and disinfectants and as remedies for ailments ranging from sore throats to indigestion and flatulence. Come back soon!