There is more sage used at Thanksgiving and Christmas than at any other time of year – what would turkey stuffing be without it? But the ancients used it for much more, including cleansing rituals on both sides of the Atlantic.
This remarkable herb was said to encourage fertility, promote breast milk production, clean wounds, and even predict the success of your business.
Sometimes a plant’s Latin name tells you a bit about its history, and that’s certainly the case with sage. Its genus is Salvia – which is tied to our words “salve” (a healing ointment) and “salvation.”
So it’s no surprise to learn that salves made of sage were widely used in the ancient world. The Romans and Greeks recognized that it had antiseptic properties, and used it to treat wounds and skin ailments, as well as taking it orally for bleeding ulcers.
Medieval gardeners took that idea even further. In England there was a saying: “why should any man die when he has sage in his garden?” Some even believed that you could achieve immortality by eating sage every day in May.
If sage grew well in the garden, some said it meant that the wife was charge of the home’s affairs, and others said it meant that the business would prosper. Perhaps the ancients recognized a connection between those two things?
In the ninth century, the emperor Charlemagne ordered that sage be grown in all imperial gardens – partly because it was so useful, and partly because it had become a valuable herb in the growing spice trade. By the middle ages, European sage had reached China, and eventually sage was being traded for tea – sometimes at the rate of four pounds of sage for one pound of tea.
On this side of the Atlantic, First Nations used several varieties of sage, particularly white sage, which grows wild in the hot, dry deserts of the US southwest. If you’ve ever taken part in a smudging ceremony, it was probably performed using white sage, a plant considered sacred in many First Nations traditions. Smudging has become incredibly trendy, and there are concerns about overharvesting of white sage, a plant which doesn’t propagate easily and is mainly harvested from the wild. People have even been arrested for harvesting sage illegally in conservation reserves.
There are hundreds of varieties of sage, including some which have been bred for purely ornamental purposes. Not all plants sold as sage are Salvia species – Russian sage is an unrelated species, and so are some others. The thick, hairy leaves of Salvia species add some gorgeous texture to a garden, and they can be particularly stunning in fall when touched with the first frost. They come in a wide range of colours, and can grow up to four feet high in the right conditions.
Sage is hardy to zone five at best, so it may grow as a perennial in the GTA but in Muskoka it’s strictly an annual. It is a great addition to planters –a pot with a mix of sage, rosemary and thyme is an excellent spot to snip all the seasoning you need for a lovely barbecued Greek chicken.
If you’re growing sage to eat, you’ll want a variety of Salvia officionalis, also called culinary sage. It is still beautifully ornamental, but it also has the flavour and aroma we want.
Using sage from the garden is as simple as snipping a few leaves whenever you want them. At the end of the season, just cut off entire stems and hang them upside down where the air can get at them. Once they’re dried, just strip the leaves off and put them in a paper bag until you want to use them.
You can also freeze sage leaves, and some say the flavour of frozen sage is better than that of dried.
Sage is a key ingredient in turkey stuffing, of course, but it’s also fabulous in many other dishes. It goes well in a lot of bean or lentil dishes, and a simple brown butter sauce with sage makes an easy and delicious topping for pasta.