"Sage never looks better, I think, than when I come upon it in the early morning and find the pebbled leaves silvered over with a summer dew. In its way there is nothing more quietly individual in all the garden."
Henry Beston, Herbs and the Earth

A bed of assorted culinary sages (Salvia) is wondrous to behold--a magic carpet of woolly textures and tints flowing in soft mounds. While most kitchen herbs tend toward various shades of green, sages lend a touch of sophistication to the garden in silvery gray-green tones dusted with purplish hues, or variegated shades of ivory, pale yellow-gold, and rose.

Sages can be effective as a backdrop or as a theme. Purple-leaved and -blooming salvias are lovely with other purple-flowering plants, especially lavenders, asters, veronicas, and chives. Pink fairy roses, malvas, nicotianas, and foxgloves are gorgeous with the purple-hued leaves of sage and can be used as a tall, spiky flower border behind medium-size varieties. Sage contrasts beautifully against the prickly thorns of roses, which often bloom around the same time. White flowers always provide a graceful highlight against silvery sage leaves. Fragrant moonflower vine (Ipomoea alba), clary sage (S. sclarea), foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), and flowering tobacco (Nicotiana sylvestris) provide a great backdrop to the dusty gray-green leaves of common sages 'Berggarten', 'Compacta', or 'Nana', punctuated with white ageratum, ruffled petunias, or garlic chives.

While the variegated sages are bold enough to hold their own, they also work well with similar-colored flowers. Mingle 'Tricolor' sage alongside miniature multicolored zinnias and spiky chives or behind purple-blooming thyme.

In the traditional herb garden setting, culinary sages are a natural complement to other gray-green Mediterranean herbs. Lavender, rosemary, santolina, and the oreganos all have similar growing requirements and work wonderfully together.
Cultivation Basics

Sage needs full sun but will tolerate some shade where air circulates freely. Plant in well-drained or gravelly soil, enriched with compost. Sage is most easily propagated from root cuttings or by layering older plants or dividing their roots. You can grow plants from seed, but the seedlings grow slowly and may vary in color and size.

Most of the common sages (S. officinalis), including 'Berggarten', 'Compacta', 'Nana', 'Purpurascens', and 'Woodcote', are hardy and will generally winter over even in the coldest zones--just be sure to mulch them well. S. dorisiana, S. elegans, and S. fruticosa aren't hardy above Zone 7 but flourish in hot southern climes.

In the South, where the air is often humid, sages are sometimes prone to fungal diseases. Keep them healthy by putting down light-colored mulch and providing plenty of room for air circulation between plants.

Mulching with an inch or two of light-colored sand, chicken grit, or ground oyster shells reflects heat and light, keeps the center of the plants dry, and diminishes the likelihood of disease. Avoid moisture-retaining mulches such as straw, wood chips, and bark, which can encourage fungal diseases. Keep sage well weeded to prevent soilborne will diseases.

Once sage is established, it needs little care beyond occasional watering and fertilization.
Harvest Often

To harvest sage, cut it back by about one-third of its size, or back to its nonblooming nodes, after flowering. In cold climates, do this no later than September--cold injures new growth and weakens the plant. In the spring, cut back leggy or rangy looking plants more severely by priming stems back to the new growth if necessary, depending upon winter damage.

The sages hold their aroma and flavor well through cooking and drying. As with most herbs, dehydrate sage in a warm, dry place away from sun. Store the leaves whole in airtight containers; then just crumble them into your dishes as needed.
In the Kitchen

All cultivars of S. officinalis can be used for cooking, although with the exception of 'Woodcote', most people don't find the variegated ones very tasty. The flavor is generally grassy, rather like silage, with hints of camphor, suggestions of lemon rind, and a resinous pinelike finish. Sage has been used with rich dishes to aid digestion, since its antioxidant properties help digest fat. The most common uses of sage are in sausages and with poultry, game, and liver. However, sage can add great flavor to vegetables, especially roots like potatoes, yams, rutabagas, carrots, onions, and leeks, and also winter squashes. It's an exceptional accent for beans, legumes, rice, cheese, egg dishes, breads, apples, pears, and sweets.

Pineapple and fruit-scented sage are delicious in teas and baked goods, and with fruits and desserts.
A Simple Cure

A member of the mint family, sage has been used since Roman times to calm the stomach and nerves. The herb has antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. It is recommended for everything from sore throats, colds, gum disease, and bad breath to excessive sweating. A word of Caution, though: Despite its myriad beneficial uses, sage contains thujone, a compound that can cause convulsions in large doses, so use sage in small amounts only as needed.

To prepare sage tea for drinking or gargling, bring water just to a boil. Place about ¼ cup fresh sage leaves or about 2 tablespoons dried in a small teapot and pour 2 cups water over them. Cover and steep for 5 to 20 minutes, according to taste. Sweeten with honey if desired. You can also bruise a few fresh sage leaves and put them in a glass of cold water to enjoy the mild flavor in a cold water infusion.
Sage Corn Bread with Cheddar

This savory corn bread is rich and cakelike and full of flavor. Taste your sage to see how strong it is; if you use a strong-flavored variety like 'Berggarten', you should use only about 3 tablespoons. This is a great accompaniment to baked beans and coleslaw.

1 cup unbleached flour
1 cup cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
cup whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup whole milk or 2% milk
2 extra-large eggs
¼ cup vegetable or corn oil
2 tablespoons honey or sorghum
About 4 tablespoons finely shredded fresh sage leaves
or 1 1/2 tablespoons crumbled dried sage
1/3 cup chopped green onions or other onion
1 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese

• Preheat oven to 375 Fahrenheit Rub a 10-inch iron skillet with oil.

• In a large bowl, combine the unbleached flour, cornmeal, whole wheat flour, baking powder, and salt and blend well.

• In another bowl, combine the milk, eggs, oil, and honey and whisk them for 1 minute. Stir in the sage and onions.

• Add the liquid ingredients to the dry ingredients along with the cheese and stir until just mixed. Pour the batter into the oiled skillet and place in the preheated oven. Bake for 30 minutes or until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the corn bread cool in the skillet for 5 to 10 minutes before cutting and serving. Serves 8

COMPANION PLANTS, Athens, OH; 740-592-4643;

RICHTERS HERBS, Goodwood, ON, Canada; 905-640-6677;

WELL-SWEEP HERB FARM, Port Murray, NJ; 908-852-5390;

PHOTO (COLOR): Sages add color to your herb garden and flower border. Pineapple sage's scarlet blossoms (above) captivate people and hummingbirds in late summer.

PHOTO (COLOR): 'Icterina'

PHOTO (COLOR): 'Purpurascens'

PHOTO (COLOR): 'Tricolor'

PHOTO (COLOR): Clary sage

PHOTO (COLOR): Pineapple sage


written by Susan Belsinger; photographs by Susan Seubert

Susan Belsinger, a teacher at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Maryland, travels throughout North America giving lectures about using herbs as part of a healthy lifestyle.

Fruity Sages

The wonderfully fragrant fruit-scented and pineapple sages (S. dorisiana and S. elegans) are half-hardy perennials that should be treated as annuals above Zone 7. Fruit-scented sage, with its fuzzy, fragrant, heart-shaped leaves and magenta blooms, gets about 3 to 5 feet tall. Hummingbirds adore the scarlet tubular flowers of the more delicate-leaved pineapple sage, which reaches about 3 feet. Both of these sages bloom late in the season, so surround them with plants such as scented geraniums, lamb's-ears, or low-growing artemesias that will highlight the brilliant green foliage. Accent the red or magenta blooms with bright-colored annuals such as small 'Profusion Cherry' zinnias, verbenas, and gomphrenas. Even chile peppers are fun, especially with an eye-catching dark purple ornamental yam or a tangle of assorted nasturtiums underneath.

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