Extension Educator, Horticulture
"When young sow wild oats, but when old, grow sage." - H. J. Byron. The herb sage has long been associated with increasing mental capacity, immortality, and longevity. It's also associated with Thanksgiving stuffing. So why is it when I eat too much stuffing I wonder why I wasn't smart enough not to eat so much stuffing?
Besides the interest in sage as a medicinal, sage has great culinary and ornamental appeal. It is used commercially to flavor beverages, confectionery, meat products and sauces and as a fragrance in soaps, detergents and colognes.
The major producers of sage are Yugoslavia and Albania. The best quality is said to come from the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslavia and it's often marketed as Dalmatian sage oil. Don't worry - it doesn't come from the dog. Commercially sage is harvested in the same manner as hay, two or three times a year. During harvest the whole countryside must smell like Thanksgiving stuffing.
Sage can easily be grown in your garden. Although many plants have sage as a part of their common name, the culinary sage is Salvia officinalis. Shrubby sage is a woody plant growing to about two feet with gray green, thick bumpy leaves. One quick brush of the leaves with your hands will reveal the luscious aromatic oils of sage.
Cold hardy sage may still be green in your garden. Perfect fresh or dried in recipes. Sage is a durable garden plant, but needs good soil drainage otherwise root rots set in. It prefers a full sun area, especially the colored leaf cultivars, but will grow in light shade. Sage should get a hard pruning in spring to keep it compact. Or do light pruning so it produces its blue edible flowers in June.
Don't assume any plant with the word sage in its name is appropriate for cooking. A woman called me once and just happened to mention she had used Russian sage in her spaghetti last night. After a long pause and short gasp from me I told her I wasn't even sure Russian sage was edible. Although they are both in the mint family, Russian sage is Perovskia atriplicifolia. She quickly did a head count and since her kids weren't showing any peculiarities beyond the usual we decided all was well but she shouldn't continue to experiment on the family.
Here are a few of the more popular sage cultivars for ornamental and cooking appeal.
'Berggarten' has larger and broader leaves on a compact plant that grows to about 18 inches tall. The purple blue flowers are also larger. 'Berggarten' is a striking ornamental plant that can also be used in cooking.
'Holt's Mammoth' also has larger and rounder leaves than garden sage, however it does not flower. 'Holt's Mammoth' grows quickly and is therefore good for cooking and for harvesting and drying large quantities.
'Nana' is smaller growing about 15 inches tall with small narrow leaves for a rock garden or as an edging plant.
'Aurea' has showy green leaves with irregular yellow margins. 'Aurea' grows to about 18 inches tall and stays fairly compact and dense without pruning. I love it with black-eyed Susans or yellow marigolds.
'Purpurea' has purple-gray leaves as the name implies. It looks excellent with pink or blue verbenas or pink petunias.
'Tricolor' is one of my favorites with its variegated leaves of dark pink, cream and green. It looks lovely with pink flowers or plants with maroon leaves. 'Tricolor' tends to be less winter hardy than garden sage. If 'Tricolor' does make it through the winter, it will need a hard pruning in spring to keep it compact.
Check out http://urbanext.illinois.edu/herbs