SAGE, THE PERFECT HERB FOR FALL
From Mary Ellen Wilcox
The Essential Herbal Magazine Sept/Oct '05
Sage's ancient history is that of a medicinal herb. The genus name to which it belongs is "salvia", meaning to heal or to be healthy. In the language of flowers, sage stands for long life and good health. Egyptian women drank sage tea to increase fertility, and the Arabians associated it with immortality. During one period in history the Chinese traded four times the weight of their finest tea for sage. There are over 750 sages, most of them ornamental, but the culinary sages are among the most useful of herbs. During the Middle Ages sage began to be used as a preservative due to it's antibacterial properties, and therefore found its way into the kitchen. The earliest recipes used sage with meat for its' ability to break down fats.
The culinary sages are at home in today's herb or perennial garden. They are beautiful, useful, easy to grow and most are hardy to zone 5 where winter lows can range from -10 to -20 degrees. Some varieties that one might like to try are:
Common or Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis) is the most popular for home gardens, and is very hardy. Garden sage grows 24-30" in height and has narrow silvery-gray leaves that have a nubby texture.
Dwarf Sage is more compact and has smaller leaves than garden sage, but is similar in structure. It makes a good container or border plant.
Purple Sage is a dark purplish-green and lends a striking contrast in the herb garden, due to it's deep rich color.
Tri-Color Sage is a variegated purple, green and cream.
Golden Sage, another variegated variety, is green, edged with gold/yellow, and adds a bright spot in any herb garden.
Bergaarten Sage, one of my favorites, resembles garden sage in color and texture, but has a much larger, more rounded leaf, and forms an attractive mound shape.
Pineapple Sage. This is one variety that I must include in my herb garden each year. The leaf has a lovely pineapple fragrance and flavor, and in late summer it sends up beautiful bright red flower spikes. Pineapple sage is a tender perennial so you will need to take cuttings in the fall, or start with a new plant each spring. If you grow this plant, try cutting some leaves, chop them fine, and mix with cream cheese. This makes a delicious spread for summertime breads such as zucchini. Use the spread for tea sandwiches, topped with a blossom. Press some of the blossoms for note cards or decorative papers.
Most sages require a sunny location and good drainage. Heavy soil with standing water in a rainy season will cause the plants to die. Try imitating sage's native Mediterranean habitat. The plants will thrive in a sandy, gravel-like soil that isn't too fertile. Good air circulation will also keep plants healthy and help resist disease. Cutting leaves on stems for summer use will prevent the plant from becoming leggy.
Sage plants may need to be replaced every 4-5 years when they become woody. This can be done by tip layering (rooting the upper section of a stem while it is still attached to the mother plant). Bend the stem down to the ground, pin it with wire 3-4" from the tip and cover with soil. In about 4 weeks roots will have formed. Cut it from the mother plant and transplant. You may also take cuttings and root them in sterile soil. To use this method, take a tender branch, remove lower leaves, dip the stem in rooting hormone and place the cutting in moist, sterile soil. When a good number of healthy roots have formed, move it to a larger pot. You can also rejuvenate an old sage plant by dividing it. Dig up the entire plant, and using a sharp shovel, divide it into several sections. Remove all woody parts and replant the tender sections.
Once your sage plants are established and flourishing you will have plenty of plant material for fall projects. The different colors and textures of sage add interest to herbal wreaths and swags, and entire wreaths can be made from common or Bergaarten sage. Decorate these with dried flowers to brighten them. Make the wreaths up fresh, lay flat to dry (a cake cooling rack makes an excellent drying space) in a dark, dry place with good circulation all around. If you wish to dry the branches before assembling into wreaths, be sure to cut the branches as long as possible, and hang them upside down in small bunches, away from light. These tall branches also make an interesting and attractive addition to winter arrangements. Be sure to also dry extra for holiday and wintertime recipes, as sage holds it's flavor very well when dried.
Sage has been used extensively in the cosmetic industry. It stimulates the skin when used in herbal baths, and is an excellent ingredient in soothing, astringent after shave preparations. A hair rinse made with "sage tea" will make dark hair shiny and lustrous.
The uses for this wonderful plant are many, so get drying, and try some of the following ideas and recipes. Sage is definitely the "perfect herb for fall"!