Herb Profile: Sage

image of sage plant

Fresh Sage Plant

Fresh Sage

INTRODUCTION: Sage is of variable species and there are a large number of different varieties. Different varieties differ enormously in their flavor.  Most of these herbs are regarded as decorative rather than culinary in nature. The Romans used the herb for medicinal purposes and there is little evidence that sage was used in their kitchens. The Chinese also used it to promote good health and to treat various illnesses.  It is not quite clear when the herb’s use entered European cooking although it was certainly well known all over Europe by the 16th century.

Garden sage is a native of the North Mediterranean coast, and as common as a wild plant on the Hills of Dalmatia near the Rijeka region. Dried wild sage and fresh sage honey are a primary export of Yugoslavia. There are a large number of different varieties. It does very well in soil that is well drained and slightly alkaline in nature.


The name Sage is derived from the Latin word salvage meaning to heal or save, which is sometimes translated as “good health.”  Common sage was at one time the official sage of many apothecary shops.

Additionally, Clary Sage was once considered useful for removing objects from the eye and hence its name means to clarify. If soaked in water, the seeds become mucilaginous and were used to treat inflamed eyes.


Common garden sage has been cultivated for centuries in the regions of southeastern Europe and Asia Minor. Over half of the world’s sage supply is still harvested from the wild in the mountains of Albania, Montenegro, and Croatia. It grows to about 2-1/2 feet and is characterized by long narrow, white woolly, gray green leaves with the surface reminiscent of scullery reptile skin.  The white to dusky mauve flowers are the chief ornamental feature. Pineapple sage has oval pointed leaves with a distinct pineapple fragrance and 2 inch long bright red flowers. The fuzzy, deeply veined, broad, oval leaves of Clary Sage, with spikes of beautiful white violets flowers, make it an excellent biennial for the herb garden.


Sage needs full sun and grows best in poor well-drained somewhat dry soil, which makes it fairly drought resistant. You can propagate sage by seed, cuttings and the layering.

Overwatering can cause serious mildew problems. Cut back the stems after blooming. If you cut frequently to harvest leaves be sure to fertilize plants occasionally with a well-balanced fertilizer. You can grow new plants of most species from seeds.  Grow garden sage and pineapple sage from low layers and stem cuttings.  Renew plants by dividing every 3 to 4 years

Sage Culinary Use


For cooking purposes the narrow leaf sage; that bears blue flowers, or the broadleaf sage, of which there are non-flowering varieties are best used for culinary purposes. It has a very assertive flavor. Use the fresh or dried leaves with lamb, veal, stuffing, game, duck, richly flavored fish, sausage, cheese, meat stuffing, and roast goose. Pork and roast goose were not considered well cooked unless sage had been used in preparing them.  Sage is easily recognized as the predominant flavor in poultry seasoning; think of your Thanksgiving turkey. Sage is an herb with a warm, slightly bitter taste. Authentic Swiss cheese is seasoned with sage. You can use sage with cheese spreads, add it to fish chowders, or use it with vegetables, especially lima beans, onions, tomatoes, and eggplant.

In British cooking, sage is best known as the primary seasoning and flavoring ingredient in poultry stuffing and sausages. The herb’s leaves are soft and pliable, which makes them easy to talk under the skin of poultry before roasting.  Its use in French cooking is used occasionally especially with pork, but rarely as a dominant flavor.  Italy on the other hand has a great love of sage; It is an important flavor component of condiments. Use sparingly, as it has a very strong sometimes bitter, flavor, making it a vital ingredient in the manufacture of liquors and bitters. Of the many varieties of sage only one, common garden sage, is used extensively for cooking.  In German cooking, the herb is used as a flavoring agent with eels. Its use extends down into Belgium where butchers hand out bundles of sage with rosemary and bay as a gift. It is used with liver and veal as in saltimbocca (thin slices of veal and ham rolled up with a Sage leaf, cooking butter and finished with Marcella) and also in many other dishes. Sages is also used fairly commonly in the Mediterranean for wrapping small birds such as thrushes, before roasting, and meat for roasting is sometimes stuck with sprigs of sage or larded with the leaves. It is also threaded with meat onto kebab skewers and sometimes turns up in the excruciatingly powerful herbs salads eat by villagers in the Middle East. Some people, indeed, advocate sage shoots and salads as well as the flavoring broad beans and peas in the same way that Savory is used in France. Personally, I like the flavor of sage in strongly aromatic meat dishes, but it is not suitable and goes better with healthy outdoor appetites then in a more sophisticated gourmet dish.  This herb is a member of the mint family.  That makes it one of the most diverse groups of aromatic plants containing over 900 species. It is known for its variety of fragrances and flavors along with its beautiful flowers, which are produced in the summer months.

Sage is one of a few herbs to remain after the decline of herbs in English cooking.  It is still used in onion stuffings for goose recipe, with pork as well as stronger flavored sausages. But it has become almost limited to Sage and onion stuffing for goose, with pork and in stronger flavored sausages. Sage is native to Dalmatia via Yugoslavia, which supplies much of the world sage.  Sage is also now widely cultivated in California and other Western states. The dried sage leaves are available whole, as a rub that is crushed, or ground.


As culinary sage is a plant that thrives in dry limestone areas in poor well drained soil, though it  can be grown almost anywhere if the climate is not too cold and wet for it. Propagation is usually buy cuttings, often rooted by layering. Although the plant is a perennial it becomes woody and straggly, so it’s best to layer and replant every few years. One or two brushes will suffice for the average garden. Sage leaves dry well and are suitable for quick freezing. As with many leafy herbs the best flavors develop just before flowering. Wash the plants in your garden with a very fine spray of water and let it dry overnight.  In the morning cut the stems at ground level and hang bunches of stems in a dark and dry area. Strip the leaves from the stems and seal them in airtight containers in a dark pantry.


The flavor of sage is powerful, especially when grown in hot dry conditions, and contains overtones of camphor. Opinions are sharply divided on its culinary excellence, some hold that it is a heavy handed and crude flavor, but there are many cooks who love what the herb adds to specific recipes.

Golden Sage: On of the species that many cooks are familiar with is a 2-foot tall shrubby perennial called Golden Sage. Its yellow edged leaves are shaped like elongated ovals 1/2 inch long and have a course surface covered with small bumps. It makes a wonderful addition to any herb garden and is used as a ornamental plant in many flower gardens. The flowers appear on tall spikes and are usually violet blue. It has a spicy sage aroma but it is not as useful as a culinary herb as other sage varieties. Because it is drought tolerant it lends itself to container gardening situations. Compost mulch will encourage leaf growth on this plant. 

Purple Sage has deep reddish purple foliage that makes it an attractive addition to your kitchen garden, flower garden or even in containers just outside your kitchen. It is named after the flowers it produces, which are a deep purple and quite lovely. You can use Purple Sage in most recipes the same way you would use Common Sage. Like all Sage varieties they prefer a well-drained soil or pots with adequate drainage. Don’t be afraid to use the leaves frequently as this trimming will encourage new growth. Composting frequently will encourage additional leaf growth.

Pineapple sage is a 2-3 foot tender annual with delicious fragrant light green leaves producing beautiful scarlet flowers in the fall that are a favorite of hummingbirds. It has a distinctly fruity odor that tastes wonderful when used in stuffing and other recipes. It has a threefold benefit in that it is ornamental, has a wonderful aroma and a delightful taste. One of the favorite uses is in preparing the leaves as a tea-all you have to do is just add a little honey

Clary Sage often grown for its pretty flowers is biennial and has large 6 – 7 inch leaves that become smaller as they approach the edge of the stands. As a biennial it produces an abundance of wide, dark green low growing leaves during the same year.  In the second year a flower stalk is sent up that grows to three feet with spotted flowers.  Plant a number of these plants each year to ensure a plant that blooms each year

Garden sage: Also known as Common Sage, it is a perennial shrub that grows to 3 feet high and has oval gray green leaves 1 – 2 inches long that are coarsely textured. Violet blue flowers appear on tall spikes. This Garden Sage is a common sage in use for thousands of years in Europe for culinary and medical uses. All sages have common applications but the best pairing for garden sage is in the kitchen.  Chicken is the classic pairing. A classic recipe is a whole chicken that you insert fresh whole sage leaves under the skin into one inch slits.  You will love this preparation.

Sage Medicinal Use


Species of the Sage family has antiseptic and antifungal properties. Golden sage was highly valued for its medicinal qualities and was said to cure ailments ranging from broken bones and wombs to stomach disorders and loss of memory.  Sages have been used in making beer and ales, mouthwashes and tooth cleansers, and to stimulate hair growth.

Clary Sage has antispasmodic, astringent and carminative properties.  It can be used to relax discomforts related to stress, fatigue and asthma as well. Clary Sage was thought to cure infections and Cataracts and was called Clear Eyes after the custom of naming plants according to the parts for the body they were supposed to cure.