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Clary Sage

( Originally Published 1933 )


Clary Sage

Labiatae Biennial

Clary is a native of southern France, Italy, and North Africa, and has become naturalized a little in Pennsylvania. It is a coarse but handsome plant, and clumps of it planted at pivotal points are effective, especially if the pinkish sclarea var. turkestanica is mixed with whitish sturdy stalks of Salvia sclarea. The unusual scent of the flowers is so strong it is the first to greet us from way across the garden.

Root. The root is spready and several stems rise from it.

Stem. The stems are about one inch across, square, ridged, covered with glistening hairs, almost like shiny wires, and measure three feet or more to the tip of the inflorescence.

Leaf. The leaves are opposite, the largest about eight inches long and six inches wide, growing smaller as they ascend the stem, puckered, with little humps all over their surfaces, and fairly wide with the margins crisped, unevenly and roughly indented. The upper surface is gray with hairs which are longer than those on the under surface. The leaf stems are square, ridged and hairy. The leaves smell, but not at all strongly, of paregoric, camphor, and benzoin, but when cooked seemed to have no noticeable taste, which may be owing to the climate.

Flower. The flowers come the second season, in late June, last a long time, and are greenish-white, labiate, and are borne in long, numerous, stiff, conspicuous spikes twelve inches or more long at the upper half of the plant. Two or three flowers form opposite whorls and are each subtended by a whitish, green-margined, wide, almost circular bract. The spur, or upper lip, curves high above the under lip, and out of the tip of it projects a bluish-tipped, forked stigma like the feeler of an insect. The flowers are half an inch long with the furry, four-pointed, cup-like calyx. They are overpoweringly fragrant and to me smell warm, piny, spicy, and camphoraceous. Porcher says the perfume has a musky, amber character.

Seed. The seeds are round, brownish, and four are produced together. They retain their vitality for two years.

Variety. The var. turkestanica is stunning with the flowers and bracts of an iridescent, pinkish-lavender, blue, and white.


The name comes from sclarus, clear, because the seeds were used to clear the eyes. Clary was thought to be good for "weak backs and to straighten the reins being made into tansies and eaten otherwise." Parkinson gives a recipe for cooking clary leaves: "The leaves taken dry and dipped into a batter of the yolk of eggs and a little milk and then fried with butter until they be crisp serve of a dish of meat accepted by manie and unpleasant to none." The tops were put into soups, and John Evelyn says of it: "in short it is a plant indu'ed with so many wonderful properties as the assiduous use of it is said to render men immortal," and suggests using the summits of the young leaves and the flowers "in our cold sallet; yet so as not to domineer." Josselyn mentioned it as did Bartram, and it is in Stearns' "The American Herbal."


Perfume. The plant is now grown for the oil, called clary sage oil, distilled from the inflorescence, and from the whole plant. It is used in violet compounds, in face-powder perfumes, in compounding chypre, and as a fixative in perfume. The dried leaves are put into sachets.

Food. The leaves formerly flavored all homemade wine, metheglin, ale, and beer. The German name of clary is mustcateller saltier, which means muscatel sage, and comes from the custom of using the leaves, along with elder flowers, to impart the flavor of muscatel raisins to Rhenish wines. Omelettes are made with clary leaves, and the flowers are used in aromatic teas.


The natural habitat of the plants is rocky, dry soil where nourishment and moisture are down deep. The French growers say manure improves the flavor of the oil and increases the flowers. My plants were grown from seed and throve in an average garden soil. The plant flowers the second summer, after which it should be pulled out by the roots and replaced with young plants from the seed-bed. As soon as the leaves are large enough they can be harvested, beginning the first season and continuing on into the following July, when the plant flowers.

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