Introduction and description
Salvia is the largest genus of plants in the mint family, Lamiaceae, with nearly 1000 species of shrubs, herbaceous perennials, and annuals.
Within the Lamiaceae, Salvia is part of the tribe Mentheae within the subfamily Nepetoideae.
The name Salvia ("salviya") derives from the Latin salvere "to feel well and healthy, health, heal", the verb related to salus (health, well-being, prosperity or salvation); referring to the herb's healing properties. Pliny the Elder was the first author known to describe a plant called "Salvia" by the Romans.
When used without modifiers, the name 'sage' generally refers to Salvia officinalis ("common sage" or "culinary sage"). The ornamental species are commonly referred to by their genus name Salvia.
Sage is used both medicinally and in cooking and its uses in cooking are quite varied. The variety most often used in cooking is Salvia officinalis. One of the most traditional uses in the UK is in the sage and onion stuffing [chopped sage, fried onions and breadcrumbs] used for turkeys at Christmas.
The name sage is so often used in speaking of these plants that it seemed helpful to group them into one section, so that their properties could be compared. In the observations, the specific plant with its correct botanical name is used.
Salvia species include annual, biennial, or perennial herbs, along with woody subshrubs. The stems are typically angled like other members in Lamiaceae.
The leaves are typically entire, but sometimes toothed or pinnately divided. Many members of Salvia have hairs growing on the leaves, stems, and flowers, which help to reduce water loss in some species. Sometimes the hairs are glandular and secrete volatile oils that typically give a distinct aroma to the plant. When the hairs are rubbed or brushed, some of the oil-bearing cells are ruptured, releasing the oil.
The flowering stems bear small bracts, dissimilar to the basal leaves—in some species the bracts are ornamental and showy. The flowers are produced in racemes, or panicles, and generally produce a showy display with flower colours ranging from blue to red, with white and yellow less common.
The calyx is normally tubular or bell shaped, without bearded throats, and divided into two parts or lips, the upper lip entire or three-toothed, the lower two-cleft. The corollas are often claw shaped and are two-lipped. The upper lip is usually entire or three-toothed. The lower lip typically has two lobes. The stamens are reduced to two short structures with anthers two-celled, the upper cell fertile, and the lower imperfect.
The defining characteristic of the genus Salvia is the unusual pollination mechanism. It consists of two stamens (instead of the typical four found in other members of the tribe Mentheae) and the two thecae on each stamen are separated by an ‘elongate connective’ [a lever].
When a pollinator probes a male stage flower for nectar, the lever causes the stamens to move and the pollen to be deposited on the pollinator. When the pollinator withdraws from the flower, the lever returns the stamens to their original position.
The lever of most Salvia species is not specialized for a single pollinator, but is generic and selected to be easily released by many bird and bee pollinators of varying shapes and sizes. The lever arm can be specialized to be different lengths so that the pollen is deposited on different parts of the pollinator’s body. For example, if a bee went to one flower and pollen was deposited on the far back of her body, but then it flew to another flower where the stigma was more forward (anterior), pollination could not take place. “ It is believed that the lever mechanism is a key factor in the speciation, adaptive radiation, and diversity of this large genus.”
Distribution and examples
The genus Salvia is distributed throughout the Old World and the Americas, with three distinct regions of diversity: Central and South America (approx. 500 species); Central Asia and Mediterranean (250 species); Eastern Asia (90 species). Many species are used as herbs and medicines, as ornamental plants (usually for flower interest), and sometimes for their ornamental and aromatic foliage. The Plant List has 986 accepted species names. A selection of some well known species is below. Where the specific plant has its own entry there is a link to take you to the entry.
Medicinal, ethnobotanic or culinary
- Salviadivinorum, or Diviner's sage, is sometimes cultivated for ‘psychedelic’ drug effects; the legality of its use is under review in some US states. Described elsewhere on the site
- Salvia fruticosa, called Greek sage or just sage is commonly grown and harvested as an alternative to common sage.
- Salvia hispanica, commonly known as Chia, produces edible seeds which are high in protein and in the omega-3 fatty acid, α-linolenic acid (ALA).
- Salvia miltiorrhiza, Chinese, Red sage, Danshen a medicinal herb.
- Salvia officinalis, or common sage is used widely in cooking, as an ornamental and landscape plant, and in herbal medicine.
- Salvia sclarea, clary or clary sage, is grown as an ornamental, medicinally and to some extent for perfume oils.
- Salvia apiana is the white sage sacred to a number of U.S. Native American Peoples, and used by some tribes in their ceremonies.
- Salvia azurea is the Blue sage
- Salvia cacaliifolia is the blue wine sage or Guatemalan sage blooming with many pure gentian-blue flowers.
- Salvia elegans, the pineapple sage, is widely grown as an ornamental shrub or sub-shrub, with pineapple scented leaves.
- Salvia leucantha, Mexican bush sage or woolly sage, is grown as an ornamental in warm climates for its drooping flower heads, with white flowers emerging from furry blue or purple bracts.
- Salvia microphylla from Mexico, sometimes called baby sage, is a small shrub grown extensively for its red (sometimes pink or white) flowers, and its fruit scented leaves.
- Salvia nemorosa, Woodland sage, ornamental
If we now home in on culinary sage – Salvia officinalis - Sage, Kitchen sage, Small Leaf Sage, or Garden Sage, we find that like many of the other varieties of sage it thrives in relatively inhospitable surroundings - dry banks and stony places, usually in limestone areas and often where there is very little soil. It will not tolerate damp or water logged soil and not only well-drained soil, but also drought. It is able to grow in very alkaline soils. It must be grown in full sun; it cannot grow in the shade.
It blooms from early summer, about June, to mid summer – late August and sometimes into September - and forms an evergreen Shrub growing to 0.6 m (2ft) by 0.6 m (2ft in) at a medium rate. It is hardy and is not frost tender. The seeds ripen from August to September. The flowers are hermaphrodite (have both male and female organs) and are pollinated by Bees. Honey bees and bumble bees both find the flowers very attractive.
Seed can be sown in March/April in a greenhouse. Germination usually takes place within 2 weeks. Prick out the seedlings into individual pots when they are large enough to handle and plant them out in early summer. In areas where the plant is towards the limits of its hardiness, it is best to grow the plants on in a greenhouse for their first winter and plant them out in late spring of the following year. Cuttings of heeled shoots, taken off the stem in May and planted out directly into the garden grow well and cuttings of half-ripe wood, 5 - 10cm with a heel, can be planted in a cold-frame from June to August . The plant can also be layered. Mound soil up around a pegged branch and the branches will root into this soil . They can be removed and planted out 6 - 12 months later.
One additional use which is definitely worth mentioning is that it is a good companion plant. When the plant is growing it is said to repel insects and thus makes a useful plant to use with cabbages and carrots – particularly the latter as they suffer badly from carrot root fly. It is inhibited by wormwood growing nearby and dislikes growing with basil, rue or the cucumber and squash family.
The observations provide very specific details on uses, however, this is what PFAF say about Salvia officinalis.
Plants for a Future
Sage has a very long history of effective medicinal use and is an important domestic herbal remedy for disorders of the digestive system. Its antiseptic qualities make it an effective gargle for the mouth where it can heal sore throats, ulcers etc. The leaves applied to an aching tooth will often relieve the pain. The whole herb is, antiseptic, antispasmodic, astringent, carminative, cholagogue, galactofuge, stimulant, tonic and vasodilator. Sage is also used internally in the treatment of excessive lactation, night sweats, excessive salivation (as in Parkinson's disease), profuse perspiration (as in TB), anxiety, depression, female sterility and menopausal problems. Many herbalists believe that the purple-leafed forms of this species are more potent medicinally. This remedy should not be prescribed to pregnant women or to people who have epileptic fits.
The plant is toxic in excess or when taken for extended periods - though the toxic dose is very large.
Externally, it is used to treat insect bites, skin, throat, mouth and gum infections and vaginal discharge. ……….
The leaves make excellent tooth cleaners, simply rub the top side of the leaf over the teeth and gums. The purple-leafed form of sage has tougher leaves and is better for cleaning the teeth. The leaves have antiseptic properties and can heal diseased gums.
Sage goes extraordinarily well with rich meats.
Liver soaked in milk overnight [which removes the bitternesss] then fried with onions and sage is one of the UK’s staple dishes. Then there is sage and onion stuffing as already mentioned, which can be used to stuff chicken, turkey and – perhaps most effective of all - goose.
Sage is chopped and added to many pork sausages in the UK. As sage helps with digestion, it goes with any fatty or oily food.
Chopped sage with other herbs – parsley, oregano etc and also chives – can be used to stuff both sea bass and mackerel. Hold the stuffing in with a tooth pick [wood] and then barbecue the fish.
Simple sage and onion stuffing [BBC]
4 large onions
10 sage leaves
125g/¼lb of breadcrumbs
salt and pepper to taste
Peel the onions, put them into boiling water, let them simmer for 5 minutes or rather longer, and just before they are taken out, put in the sage-leaves for a minute or two to take off their rawness.
Chop both these very fine, add the bread, seasoning and butter, and work the whole lot together with the yolk of an egg, when the stuffing will be ready for use.
It should be rather highly seasoned, and the sage-leaves should be very finely chopped.
When made for goose, a portion of the liver of the bird, simmered for a few minutes and very finely minced, is frequently added to this stuffing; and where economy is studied, the egg and butter may be dispensed with.
grilled calves liver, sage, onions in balsamic vinegar
Pork with apples, sage and parsnips [BBC]
3 small parsnips trimmed
3 tbsp olive oil
250g pork fillet (thick end)
85g Gruyère cheese, preferably reserve
1 tbsp chopped fresh sage , plus six leaves
2 knobs of butter
2 small Cox's apples, cored and sliced
½ a small Savoy cabbage, cored and finely shredded
small wine glass of dry white wine or cider
Preheat the oven to fan 160C/conventional180C/gas 4. Cut the parsnips in half widthways and the fatter ends into four. Put 2 tbsp of the oil in a small roasting tin, toss in the parsnips and roast for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, cut the pork fillet in half to make two shorter pieces, then slice through each piece – but not all the way through – so you can open it like a book. Cut the cheese in two, put a slice on one half of each piece of pork and sprinkle with the chopped sage and season. Fold the pork over – closing the book – to sandwich the cheese, and tie together with string to make two parcels. Season the pork on both sides.
Heat the remaining tablespoon of oil with one knob of the butter in a frying pan until sizzling, then brown the pork for 2-3 minutes on each side. When the parsnips have had their 20 minutes cooking time, put the pork on top of them and return to the oven for 15 minutes. This will give you slightly pink pork – if you prefer it to be well done, cook it for 20-25 minutes.
While the pork is roasting, heat another knob of butter in a frying pan and fry the sage leaves for about 30 seconds until crisp, then put them on a plate. Now add the apples to the pan and cook over a fairly high heat until caramelized. Lift them out, then add the cabbage to the pan and stir fry until tender.
Spoon the cabbage onto two plates. Snip the string from the pork and discard. Put the pork on top of the cabbage, then arrange the parsnips and apples on either side. Put the roasting tin on high heat on the stove and tip in the wine or cider. Bubble for 3-4 minutes to reduce and then pour over the meat. Scatter the frizzled sage leaves on top and serve
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- Dr Duke's list of Anti-inflammatory activity for Sage 018120
- Dr Duke's list of Chemicals and their Biological Activities in: Salvia officinalis L. (Lamiaceae) -- Sage 019013
- Dr Duke's list of Chemicals and their Biological Activities in: Salvia sclarea L. (Lamiaceae) -- Clary Sage 019015
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- Dr Duke’s list of Plants containing CAMPHOR [used for warts and verucas] 021312
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