Salvia officinalis

Common Sage, Salvia officinalis

Common sage Salvia officinalis

Common sage
Salvia officinalis

Cooks and gardeners alike are indebted to this classic, evergreen perennial for the unique, pungent flavor and aroma that its gray-green leaves produce. It forms a 2.5-foot-tall by 3-foot-wide bush with woody stems that may be trimmed back to newly emerging growth or strong stems in spring. In early to mid-summer, it sends up lavender-purple flower spikes; it has both ornamental and culinary qualities in an herb garden. It tolerates alkaline soils, but not wet winter conditions.

Noteworthy CharacteristicsButterflies love salvia.

CareProvide moist but well-drained soil in full sun. This species tolerates alkaline soil.

PropagationSow seed, or divide plants, in spring. Take cuttings spring through fall.

ProblemsPowdery mildew, rust, stem rot, fungal leaf spots, whiteflies, aphids, mealybugs, spider mites.

Common Name(s): garden sage, common sage;

Botanical Family: Lamiaceae, the mint Family.


Garden sage, Salvia officinalis, is a short-lived semi-woody shrub that gets up to 2 ft (0.6 m) tall with a similar spread. It has intensely aromatic, thick, wooly, gray-green or multi-colored, oval leaves to 3 in (7.6 cm) long. They are ‘pebbly’, like seersucker, with conspicuous veins on the underside and arranged in opposing pairs on the square stem. The leaves have a lemony, slightly bitter fragrance, reminiscent of rosemary. The stem is green at first, then becomes woody in its second year. Flowers are blue, lilac or white, with two lips, and borne in erect axillary racemes.

There are many cultivars. These five are hardy only to Zone 7: ‘Purpurascens’, also known as purple sage, has leaves that are reddish-purple when young; it is the preferred variety for medicinal uses. ‘Aurea’ is smaller and has yellow leaves. ‘Tricolor’ has leaves patterned with red, cream and green. ‘Icterina’ has variegated gold and green leaves. ‘Holt’s Mammoth’ is much larger, to 3 ft (0.9 m) tall. ‘Berggarten’ is smaller, with rounded leaves and hardy to zone 5.


Garden sage, Salvia officinalis, originates from the Mediterranean region of north Africa, Spain and the Balkans. It has been grown as a medicinal and culinary herb for thousands of years, and can now be found in gardens everywhere.


Prune sage frequently to encourage more foliage and to keep it from going to flower. Replace after 3 or 4 years as it becomes woody and less productive.Light: Full sun.Moisture: Average water requirements. Water new plantings frequently, established plants less often. Sage is not drought tolerant.Hardiness: USDA Zones 5 – 10.Propagation: Sage can be grown from seed, but to be sure of what you get, the named cultivars should be propagated by root division or stem and leaf cuttings.


All of the common cultivars of garden sage make beautiful accents in borders and rock gardens. Sage often is grown in containers for ornamental and culinary use.

Sage is used extensively in the kitchen to add a unique flavor to salads, egg dishes, soups, stews, meats, and vegetables. It is used to flavor vinegars and tea. It is one of the most important culinary herbs in western cooking. Sage, parsley, rosemary, thyme, basil, chives, garlic, dill, sweet marjoram, savory, oregano, and French tarragon are indispensable in the basic culinary herb garden. Sage is used as an ingredient in soaps, cosmetics and perfumes. Smeared on the skin, sage is a useful insect repellent. Dried leaves among clothes and linen will discourage moths.

There are many medicinal uses for this important herb. Modern research has confirmed antiseptic, estrogenic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-microbial properties in extracts from sage. It is used in gargles to treat most types of sore throat. Sage is a useful digestive tonic and stimulant, and helps in the digestion of fatty meats. Its estrogenic activity makes it a useful remedy for irregular menstruation, and it reduces hot flashes and sweating. A commercial product made in Germany from sage is marketed to reduce sweating. Sage lowers blood sugar in diabetics. It reduces muscle spasms. For routine culinary uses, harvest sage leaves as you need them. Well established plants (not those in their first year) can be severely defoliated 2 or 3 times a year. The leaves can be dried for storage; note that this makes their flavor stronger and a little less lemony.


The genus name, Salvia, comes from the Latin for “to cure.” Sage has been associated with longevity for centuries. “How can a man grow old who has sage in his garden?” asked the medical school in Salerno, Italy in the 10th century. The Romans considered sage a sacred herb that could be harvested only with solemn ceremony. The 17th century Chinese valued it so much that they gladly traded 3 chests of their precious green tea to Dutch merchants for one chest of sage.


As with any herbal medicines, consult your doctor before using. Floridata does not advocate self-diagnosis or self-medication. It is known, for example, that taking large doses of sage preparations during pregnancy or if epileptic, can be dangerous.

Garden Sage rivals many of its ornamental Salvia cousins during its three to four week bloom period.  And, of course, nothing says stuffing like good old Garden Sage.

The buds of Garden Sage are reminiscent of oddly shaped Easter Eggs. They look like someone took a wax crayon and made bands, dipped the egg in pale green, removed the wax and dipped it in pale purple. Shooting up to three feet with its blooms, Garden Sage is both a culinary and ornamental delight. Sharing its color for three to four weeks in early spring, it is one of the prettiest of all Salvias. It makes a great informal hedge or drift. Garden Sage flowers can be used as a garnish or as an addition to fresh bouquets.

There are several variations of Culinary Garden Sage. These include S.officinalis ‘icterina’Golden Garden Sage, which has green and gold irregularly variegated leaves; S. officinalis purpurea, Purple Garden Sage, which has dark purple new leaves that turn a soft green with age; S. officinalis ‘Tricolor’, which is variegated cream, green and pink; S. officianlis ‘Berggarten’, which has a large oval leaf; and S. officinalis ‘Window Box Sage’ which is particularly nice in a container Window Box Sage is a recent Mountain Valley Grower’s introduction and is the only one of these that replicates the splendid flowers of Garden Sage.  All of these have the same flavor of Garden Sage. The Golden and the Tricolor Sages may be a tad less winter hardy than the zone 5 rating assigned to common Garden Sage.  

Culinary Sages are best used fresh like in the appetizer above which combines persimmon, brie, a sage leaf and prosciutto. Once lightly broiled the sage lends its flavorful oils to the dish. Sages can also be dried. For drying large amounts of leaves, wait until after the plants have grown back after pruning blooms. Wash the plants in the garden with a fine spray of water the night before; and the next morning, when the dew has dried, cut stems as long as possible without cutting into old wood. Hang these in bunches of three of four in a dark, dry, clean area. As soon as they are crispy dry, strip the leaves (whole, if possible) and seal them in an airtight container placed out of direct light.

The flavor should remain potent for three or four months, hopefully—at least until spring brings fresh, tender leaves again. Besides the traditional use in stuffing, Sage is good with pork, sausage, other meats, and cheese. It is often combined with thyme and used with beans and in soups. Use Sage with fruits in vinegars; if the vinegar is a light colored elixir, try one of the variegated forms. Grind dried sage with dried rosemary and dried oregano for a nice Italian seasoning. The flowers make an attractive garnish in salads, butters, soft cheeses, and ice cubes.

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