Plant Profile: Sage
This year I grew sage in my back yard. I had a perfect spot open to the midday sun where my landscaper prepared a garden bed. My intention was to grow herbs here. The soil was nutrient rich packed with mushroom compost, earthy, rich smelling dirt. This was the third time I tried to grow sage and I had come to the conclusion that it was hard to grow. The first two times were in pots inside, both purchased as small plants, both died almost immediately when I got them home. This time I was planting sage from seeds outside which I imagined would make it even harder to propagate. Wrong. The sage buds appeared before any of the other herb seeds I planted in this bed. Being a novice, I did not mark where I planted seeds something I vow to do next year. But as these sage leaves appeared, I knew them because of their distinctive smell. It was a beautiful, fresh yet sharp smell, which lingered on my fingers as I touched or gently rubbed the light-green oblong leaves. The sage grew all the way into the fall and although there were none of the pretty purple flowers, there was an abundant and healthy supply of leaves. They became my kitchen lab ally, allowing me to experiment with medicine making I had never tried before. I made fresh tinctures, infused oil, and dried the leaves for tea and cooking. I loved my garden sage and am excited to see if it will bloom again next year in its perennial form.
As a commonly used culinary herb, there is no need to look for alternative buying options to find good quality sage. It is best to use as much organic as possible. It is especially important to use organically grown herbs because the nature of their use is a goal to consume concentrated amounts of their constituents. Unwanted chemicals that may be higher in nonorganic versions, like pesticides, would be constituents best avoided. Both fresh and dried sage can be found in almost any supermarket and organic choices are often available. Locally grown sage found at a farmer’s market is likely the freshest and most intense, so all the better.
Sage, a seldom used but ubiquitous garden herb, is actually quite complex in its constitutional make-up so listing its virtues could fill pages. From a nutritional perspective, sage has a high amount of vitamin K, with smaller amounts of vitamin A, vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium, iron, manganese, and a tiny bit of zinc. Sage acts as an antioxidant, which means that it is used in the body to fight off the damaging free radicals we are exposed to day after day. These toxins are capable of causing damage to our cells and genes. Anything we do to provide the body with extra defenses against them is advantageous; enter the importance of eating foods high in antioxidants. Many herbs have concentrated antioxidant properties. Sage is a powerful one because of the compound rosmanol, which is also present in high quantities in rosemary. Sage and rosemary are in the same plant family and share other constituents as well including several antimicrobials that account for the ability of these herbs to fight infections. Volatile oils, tannins, and bitters are present in sage and contribute to various opposite characteristics. It is astringent, but at the same time oily. Sage is warming and cooling, drying and moistening, and overall quite healing in nature.
From a technical standpoint, sage has a bitter and pungent taste. It is intense and can cover up even a rancid flavor, which was a common way this herb was used before refrigeration was available. Originally the antimicrobial sage was added to meats, not only to cover what might be spoiling but also to prevent rancidity. The strong flavor mixes well as a hot tea with added lemon and honey, especially soothing for a sore throat.
Whenever an herb is used to make essential oils, there must be something special about the way it smells. However, sage is used in aromatherapy not only for fragrance, but also popularly for its cleansing ability. Smudging or burning dried sage is common practice, we sage our bodies to clear damaging energy, we sage our homes to clear negativity and new items to clear lingering unwanted forces. I have known people to sage cars, clothes, foods, anything. The aroma has different elements to it, including an enduring freshness that feels clean. I think burning sage smells similar to that distinctive cannabis odor that you smell if someone is smoking marijuana. But plain dried or fresh sage smells nothing like this. It is woodsy, spicy, clean, and sharp, with a touch of flowery aroma. And it may bring up thoughts of Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing.
Sage has a long history of use and along with that comes interesting customs and beliefs. The name itself has a magical healing feel from the Latin salvia, the saviour, which comes from salvere, meaning to cure, save, or be in good health. The word sage signifies wisdom and calm judgment, like a scholar or sage advice. Not surprising then that eating sage is believed to impart wisdom. Romans and many Native American cultures elevated sage to a sacred herb using it in ceremony. An old English practice was to eat sage every day during the month of May to be granted immortality and it was believed that where sage grew well in the garden, the wife ruled and the household possessed great success. Legend also tells of sage as medicine. In the Middle Ages during the Bubonic Plague or Black Death, there is a story of four thieves who robbed houses or graves of people who had died of this disease yet did not get sick themselves. The secret was that one of the thieves was an herbalist who instructed the thieves to drink what is now called Four Thieves Vinegar, vinegar infused with herbs one of which was sage. Sage was also used topically to treat wounds, insect and snakebites. My favorite sage legend is to write a wish on a sage leaf, sleep with it under your pillow for three days, and then bury it outside. Although I have not tried this, with all of the charm of this herb, I would not be surprised if this wish would come true.
Culinary and Cooking
Sage has an intense, powerful flavor and a little goes a long way. Maybe this is why it appears most often as a seasoning for meats, poultry and sausage, it needs the balance of their rich character. The pungent addition to quinoa, couscous, or other whole grains adds interest and a fresh zest. Sage is especially known for its place at Thanksgiving for turkey, stuffing, and gravy and it is a principal spice in the poultry seasoning mix that is commonly sold for holiday cooking. Sage is an herb that can be infused into different mediums to extract its beneficial constituents in delicious ways. It is easy to do and because sage has natural preservative qualities, each preparation will last a long time, so you will have them to use at your fingertips. My favorites are sage infused olive oil to use as a salad dressing or to sauté or cook with just as you would plain olive oil; sage infused apple cider vinegar also for salad dressings and to help with digestion or fend off the beginning of a cold; and sage infused honey which is amazing to take by the spoonful to soothe a sore throat or cough and also to add to tea, plain yogurt, or hot cereal.
An ancient Roman medical school text says, “Why should a man die, when sage grows in his garden?” When antibiotics did not exist, sage was known as a powerful anti-bacterial warrior. It still is, especially as a remedy for infections of the throat or upper respiratory tract. Gargling with a strong sage tea or using it as a mouthwash can alleviate the pain of sore throats, laryngitis, thrush, gingivitis, and mouth sores. The key to remembering how to use sage is focusing on its balancing effect on temperature and fluids in the body. It can be used for fevers or to dry up excessive secretions like the mucus of post-nasal drip or sinusitis. The astringent and drying action also applies to excessive sweating and is especially useful for women who have night sweating during the menopausal years. It decreases urinary frequency, excessive saliva, and chronic diarrhea. Sage should be used with caution for breastfeeding mothers because it can dry up breast milk, but this would turn into a benefit during weaning. Recent studies indicate that sage has an effect on the brain; it can enhance memory especially in the elderly and has benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease. It is a carminative, which means it will alleviate discomforts of indigestion like gas, nausea, diarrhea, and stomach rumbling. The bitter quality acts to aid digestion of fatty or oily foods. With so many uses, the bottom line on sage is we should not overlook it or just save it for stuffing and turkey.