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Salvia and Sage: Nature’s Elixir of Health

Salvia and Sage: Nature’s Elixir of Health

By Penye Cushing
UCCE Master Gardener

Renovating a front yard, I fell in love with a wonderful smelling shrub in a myriad of colors ranging from white and yellow, blue and purple, to shades of pink and red. Even better, the foliage ranged from large leaves to small, dull to shiny, fuzzy to smooth, and in tones of gray through dark green. Each plant had a plant name tag of either Sage or Salvia. I did my planting homework, but found I wanted to learn more about their use and why they had different names but seemed so similar. 

Salvia is a member of the large Mint family of plants encompassing nearly 1,000 shrubs, perennials and annuals. The ornamental species are commonly called Salvia. The cooking or medicinal plant is generally called sage, although its Latin name is Salvia. All sages are salvias! 

Sages have been part of our history since the written word. Most varieties are native to the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Plants were carried to Central Europe in the Middle Ages and immigrants from Europe brought them to America. A few varieties of sage came from Central America and Mexico. Salvia was first recorded in Western literature in 1939 by Mr. Jean Basset Johnson whose research showed the ancient Aztecan Indians had used it for healing, vision interpretation and prophecy. This particular plant, Salvia divinorum, is now being researched for assistance with diseases of schizophrenia and dementia.

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Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, and almost every culture of the world cultivated sage for culinary and medicinal use. Sage was used in ancient Greece for digesting fatty foods, tummy aches, tooth polish and flavoring meat. Charlemagne’s people blended a sage tea with honey and vinegar to make an effective mouth wash to mitigate the tooth infections that plagued people in the past. Sage is even an ingredient in some of today’s mouth washes! 

Culinary sage teams up with foods rich in oils and fat. It is not just a Thanksgiving herb—it’s peppery-rosemary flavor is useful year-round. When shopping for fresh sage look for tender-firm leaves with a downy coating and no brown spots.  

Sage pairs well with dairy and cheese, so add a bit to your next grilled cheese sandwich. Sautee it with onions, caramelize, then use to top a pizza. Sausages and beer are Germany’s great treat and you can add carmelized sage onions to a grilled sausage sandwich. Yum! Add sage to browned butter over pasta. Make a pesto out of sage, toasted walnuts, lemon juice, and soft goat cheese. Add this to a ham sandwich…Oh Joy! Try roasting cauliflower florets tossed with melted butter, chopped fresh sage, cooked penne, shredded cheese and an egg. Spoon all into a loaf pan, bake for about 30 minutes. Cook slightly then slice. OK to add ham if you’d like. 

Salvia is a member of the large Mint family of plants encompassing nearly 1,000 shrubs, perennials and annuals. The ornamental species are commonly called Salvia. Photo courtesy of txmg.org.

Salvia is a member of the large Mint family of plants encompassing nearly 1,000 shrubs, perennials and annuals. The ornamental species are commonly called Salvia. Photo courtesy of txmg.org.

Sage mixed with hummus. Sage and apple or pineapple. With butter in gnocchi, ravioli (especially pumpkin), or in bean dishes! There are so many ways to try sage in your cooking. 

Ornamental salvias come in flowering or non-bloomers. Resembling mint, the stems are square and silvery with lance-shaped leaves. Depending on its variety, it can grow one or two feet tall, to eight or ten! Pollinators such as hummingbirds or bees love the trumpet-shaped blooms of blue, red, pink, purple, or bicolor orange and yellow. 

Generally, most salvia need minimal water and soil that drains well. They love living here in our Central Valley. The only complaint a salvia will have is they don’t like wet feet! 

Look up your individual plant for directions on nipping back after first bloom. Generally, it is best to cut back about a third of the plant. Remove the spent blooms after flowering for more growth and rebloom. Salvias are not frost-hardy and will die back during their dormant stage. However, most will start to set out fresh growth in the spring, despite their dead-looking appearance. Once you see these new little green leaves starting to sprout, it’s safe to cut the plant back to about six inches from the ground. 

All these curative and culinary purpose and beauty too! I can’t wait to see the beginning growth and first blooms on my salvia and sages this year. 

The UCCE Master Gardeners will be available to answer your gardening questions at the Farmers Market in the Visalia Sears parking lot on Saturdays from 8 a.m. to noon, or at these upcoming venues:

Sat., May 19 – Orchard Supply Plant Clinic, Hanford, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Sat., May 19 – Orchard Supply Plant Clinic, Visalia, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Sat., May 26 – Bravo Lake Berry Tasting from 8 a.m. to noon at Woodlake Botanical Gardens 

To contact the Tulare/Kings Master Gardeners, call 559-684-3325, e-mail cetulare@ucdavis.edu or write to 4437 S. Laspina St., Ste. B, Tulare, CA 93247.

This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.

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