Jane McLeod: Sage is both culinary and decorative

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Picture a bustling kitchen at Thanksgiving and the aroma from the turkey and stuffing permeating the air. From the stuffing comes a kind of woodsy - even slightly minty - scent of common sage (Salvia officinalis) grown around the world for culinary purposes. This herb is from the large mint family of plants that contains about 3,500 species identified by their aromatic qualities and ease of cultivation and includes many widely used culinary herbs such as rosemary, basil, marjoram and more.

Sage grows throughout the world, from the culinary garden herb to decorative ornamental plants with variegated leaves, to wild varieties (not to be confused with sagebrush which comes from the Sunflower family). Sage is a hardy perennial, a strongly flavored bushy plant, and depending on the weather and variety, it's able to grow to a height of 2 to 4 feet, staying evergreen in warm climates. I have had it survive our winters outside, but here it should really be treated as an annual. Plant it in a container that returns inside for the cold months or replant it every summer.

Sage grows well in any type of soil but prefers good drainage and a sunny warm place. The leaves, set in pairs, are narrow, pale and gray-green with a rough texture, almost pebbly, and with a pronounced veining on the underside. The blossoms, set on short straight spires, are most commonly a soft mauve, blooming any time from early to late summer, depending on the weather. For culinary use, the leaves are best if they are harvested before the plant flowers. Dried leaves are highly aromatic and pungent; unlike most herbs, sage leaves intensify as they dry. For best flavor, use it sparingly. Sage can be grown successfully from a seed, but it is a slow process. All forms grow from cuttings.

Other culinary varieties are purple sage (purpurea), broad-leaved sage (Broad Leaf) and the more delicate and aromatic pineapple sage (Salvia elegans). All these varieties can be used in the kitchen and as an ornamental plant in gardens.

The name salvia, from the Latin salvere, means to be in good health, to cure or to save. Sage is among the healing and cosmetic herbs with some pretty far-fetched claims throughout its history. It has links to many cultures and is thought to have originated in Syria and traveled to the rest of the world via the trade routes.

Sage is known as the star of the kitchen, and for most dishes, it is best used on its own.

Jane McLeod is a master gardener through the Colorado State University Cooperative Extension office in Routt County. Questions? Call 879-0825 or: gardeners@co.routt.co.us

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