( Originally Published 1933 )
Sage is a hardy plant native to the northern shores of the Mediterranean and is one of the herbs universally employed as a flavoring. It is said to be grown in the gardens of every village in Europe.
Root. The root is woody with wiry fibers, and spreading.
Stem. The stems are of a soft, woody texture, growing from eighteen inches to two feet high, are squarish, and covered with woolly down. They are somewhat spready and recumbent, and grow quite untidy unless cut back from time to time.
Leaf. Ibn Baither says the Greek name for the plant means camel's tongue, and the oval leaves terminating in a point, with their glandular uneven surface covered with a fine network, do resemble the tongue of some animal. They are soft to the touch, dark above and lighter below, and of a "sage green" changing from grayer to greener at different seasons. They are covered with short, soft white hairs, are opposite at right angles to the pair above, and bracts rise from their axils. They are very fragrant of sage, which is a mixture of thyme, turpentine, with a dark quality, a pungent one, and altogether pleasant.
Flower. The flowers come in late June and grow in a long raceme, are quite gaping, of a lavender blue and look a little like a parrot's beak. They grow in whorls, and form nearly leafless spikes. Two strongly marked white spots on the lower lip are surrounded by a dark lavender patch. The style is whitish; the stigma two-parted at the tip, blue-purple, and curves out from the hooded upper lip; and the four stamens are whitish with golden anthers; the four sepals are brownish, pointed, ribbed, and hairy.
Seed. The seeds are nearly spherical, blackish-brown, and, according to Vilmorin, the germinating power lasts three years.
Variety. There are many varieties. The one described above is the narrow-leaved sage, the Sage of Virtue. There is the broad-leaved sage or balsamic sage, rarely used in cookery, but rather in medicine. The red-leaved sage, or red top, is much esteemed in cookery. The ribs and nerves of the leaves are purple, and so are the young stalks and the young leaves, but with age these change to green. Green-leaved sage, green top, is a variety of the red-leaved; the young shoots, leafstalks, and the nerves of the leaves being green. Then there is a variegated red-leaved sage and a sage with white flowers, which has smaller leaves than most of them, and is quite hardy.
HISTORY AND LEGEND
Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and Pliny mention sage. Sage in the garden is said to prolong life, and there is another saying that sage grows according to the wealth of the family who own the land, and another that it only prospers where the wife rules. In French, sage means wise. This meaning and our English one are said to come from the belief that the plants have the property of strengthening the memory. Salvia planted with rue was thought to keep toads away.
At one time the Dutch carried on a profitable trade in it. They procured the leaves of the narrow-leaved sage from the south of France, dried them in imitation of tea, and shipped these to China, where for each pound of sage they received four pounds of tea in exchange.
Sage, tansy, or black walnut leaves are said to keep ants away. Sage leaves can be smoked, as is tobacco.
Medicine. To a mild degree it possesses astringent and tonic properties. Sage tea has been a favorite household remedy to cure colds and sore throats, and as a gargle.
Perfume. The oil distilled from the whole plant has a camphoraceous odor and is used in soap perfumes.
Food. Dried sage leaves flavor pork, and stuffings of duck, goose, veal, sausages, and cheeses. They should be used discreetly, as sage is strong and apt to override other flavorings. Too much sage gives some people indigestion.
Sage plants can be bought from nurseries in the United States. The plants grown from seed are said to be generally the narrow-leaved variety. They can be increased from cuttings planted in sand which should be made in spring. The plant should be allowed to go into the winter with a full head of leaves and not be cut back too late to prevent these from growing out again. My plants grow in a very dry situation in clay soil, but most likely Salvia officinalis will grow in any good, well-drained garden loam.
Harvest. The first year the plants should not be cut too much. The leaves are harvested by stripping from the stems and drying in the shade to prevent their turning black. The drying should proceed continuously. Dr. Stockberger says the American leaf sage usually brings higher prices than the European.