Sage – Salvia Officinalis, History, cooking, growing, varieties by Andy Hamilton

Andy Hamilton
Andy Hamilton

Sage is a member of the mint family and there are over 750 different varieties of sage scattered across our planet. This family consists of annuals, biannual and perennials. 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 seers it was used in religious ceremonies by the Central American Indians. You would get a surprise if you mum stuffed the Christmas turkey with that breed of sage by mistake!

History

The sage varieties used as herbs stem from the Mediterranean and Asia Minor and Sage has been grown in Central Europe since the Middle Ages.

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 a whole 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 sacrific 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 be good for the brain, senses and err oh memory.

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. I wonder if this was because they were quite sick of tea by the 17th century.

Growing Sage

Common sage and clary sage are easy to start from seed. Propagate in early spring ideally keeping at a temperature of between 15-21 centigrade (60-70F) and plant out after about 4 weeks. So ensure that you avoid frost when planting out, as this can adversely affect young plants. Plant them out at about 45-60cm (18-24 inches) apart.

You can also grow from cuttings, use a sand compost mix. Rooting will take about 4 weeks.

Sage likes full sun and well drained soil, though it will tolerate poor soil if you allow it to dry between watering.

Sage will withstand most winters the lowest temperature it need for survival is about -12 centigrade (10 F). However, younger plants will benefit from some winter protection. You could put them under a clotch, simply made from a used pop bottle with the bottom cut off. Or you could cover them with straw to keep the warmth in. It is not advisable to pick sage during the colder months as this can damage the plant. In warmer climates you can pick away quite happily all year round, you lucky devils.

Sage will benefit from a good pruning just after it flowers, as this stimulates growth. I gather leaves off my plant as and when I require them, obviously not in the winter as I have just pointed out. Also do not pick the leaves before the plant reaches a height of about 20cm (8 Inches).

If you plant sage with your cabbages it is said to repel white butterflies, it is also beneficial to plant next to vines.

Sage will grow quite happily in a container, it is fairly wind tolerant and will grow in most composts, providing the drainage is good.

A well cared for sage plant will grow up to 1 meter (3 feet) tall. I have had sage on my allotment for about six months now. It is in very clayey soil and has thrived. It gets a watering in hot weather along with my other plants and I feed it now and again. In short it has been very easy to grow.

A few Sage Varieties

Two popular varieties used in cooking are Satureia Hortensis and S.montana, more commonly known as summer and winter savory.

Pineapple sage, Satureia Hortensis, is an interesting variety it is sub tropical and as such must be protected from frost. It has a wonderful pineapple scent and grows well in containers. It can only be grown from cuttings apparently.

Narrow leaved sage, Salvia Lavanduf, also known as Spanish Sage is good for making sage tea with. Simply put the leaves in a tea pot with hot water leave to stoop and drink without milk.

Gold Sage, Salvia Officinalis ‘Icterina’ can also only be grown from cuttings and is characterised by its green/gold leaves. (see opposite for picture, click to enlarge – Kindly taken by Genine Blanning)

Purple/Red Sage, Salvia Officinalis purpurascens, is a hardy evergreen with purple leaves. If you clip the leaves in spring it develops new leaves but does not flower much and if you don’t clip it it goes woody. So what do you do?

Cooking with sage

Sage is a really strong flavour so be careful with the amount you use in cooking. If you love the flavour of sage try my own recipe sage and seed bread. A quirky bread that is reminiscent of sage and onion stuffing, speaking of which here is a recipe.

Sage and Onion stuffing

Ingredients

  • 4 large Onions
  • 10 sage leaves
  • 125g (quarter 1lb) breadcrumbs
  • 40g (1.5 oz) unsalted butter
  • 1 egg
  • pinch of salt and pepper

Method/Procedure

Peel the onions and put them whole into a pan of boiling water. Simmer for about 5-10 minutes. Throw in the sage leaves in the last 2 minutes. Take them out the pan and chop them both finely then put into a mixing bowl. Work in the breadcrumbs, salt and pepper and butter. Mix in just the yolk of the egg. (I crack it over a table spoon to seperate the album from the yolk). You will now have enough stuffing to stuff a medium turkey or a large chicken. Or even if you are vegetarian you can work the mixture into stuffing balls ans baking until hard.

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