Is there a more versatile plant than sage?


A discussion of perennial herbs wouldn’t be complete without including sage. There may not be a more versatile plant in the garden. Mostly that’s because there are so many different types of sage.

They’re great to have in your garden for several reasons. Pollinators love them and in turn pollinate your entire garden. Most types flower profusely and they are very hardy perennials. Still, bloom will always benefit from deadheading.

Another advantage is that most sage types tend to repel deer. At least the deer don’t often eat the sage. Rabbits avoid them too. They’re even supposed to keep mice away. Some people advocate planting sage around the edge of the garden. That couldn’t hurt.

Once established, sage tolerates drought pretty well. It will grow in partial shade but performs better in sunny places. Clay soils can be a problem, but sage thrives in acid as well as alkaline soils.

So what exactly is sage? Sages are in the genus Salvia. There are a ton of salvias, both annual and perennial. Common garden sage has grayish green rough textured foliage. Leaf surfaces almost look pebbled like a football or basketball. This is the most common cooking sage and is often used in poultry stuffing.

It shouldn’t end there. This is a very flavorful herb that brings out the flavor of many foods, especially meats. It’s great in marinades or sautéed with oil or butter to flavor it.

Sages can be upright or creeping. Many varieties are variegated. Some are even purple, although the purple sages usually don’t bloom as much. Some are very fragrant, while others have little aroma.

We often visualize sage as having blue to purple flowers, but my favorite is pineapple sage. It is less hardy than most perennial sages, but the bright red flowers and pineapple aroma make it a must for the herb or perennial garden. It can get tall but pruning it only makes it prettier. Hummingbirds and butterflies love it too.

Pineapple sage also makes a great cut flower and it dries well for flower arrangements. Green leaves also make a great tea, but much of the flavor is lost when drying them.

Sage has antimicrobial properties and has been prescribed by herbalists for nearly every problem known to exist. That’s a slight exaggeration, but sage preparations have been used to treat food poisoning, sore throat, breathing disorders, digestive problems and bad breath. Sage also has diuretic properties and will lower blood sugar.

Sage also has strong antioxidant properties and that could be part of the reason it has a wide usage in holistic medicine. It’s used as a general pain reliever and has even been mentioned as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s. Relieving skin disorders like dandruff or acne are also common claims.

Side-effects are common with pharmaceuticals. They are also prevalent with herbal medicines. Sage contains a compound called Thujone, which can be toxic in high doses. It can cause seizures and liver and nervous system damage. Research all herbal medicines like you would synthetic ones. Always consult your doctor.

Sage foliage showing pebbled textured foliage

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School (tmanzer@ecpps.k12.nc.us).

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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