Jane McLeod: Sage is 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 a woodsy, even slightly minty scent that is contributed by the common sage (Salvia officinalis) grown across the world for culinary purposes.

This herb is from the large mint family of plants that contains some 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 (but 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 is able to grow to a height of two to four feet, staying evergreen in warm climates. I have had it survive our winters outside, but here it should be treated as an annual. Either plant it in a container that returns inside for the cold months or plant a fresh new specimen 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. Unlike most herbs, sage leaves intensify as they dry, becoming highly aromatic and pungent. For best flavor, use it sparingly because too much produces an unpleasant musty taste.

Sage can be grown successfully from seed, but it is a slow process and all forms grow from cuttings. Other culinary varieties are purple sage (S.o. "purpurea"), broad-leaved sage (S.o. "Broad Leaf") and the more delicate and aromatic pineapple sage (Salvia elegans). All these varieties can be used in the kitchen, but this also is another herb that is undervalued as an ornamental in the garden with a host of different looks from purple to gold variegated to tricolor leaves. Again remember that although it is a perennial, after cutting back in the fall and even with a good blanket of mulch, the plant might not survive our deep freeze.

The name salvia, from the Latin salvere, to be in good health, to cure, to save, reflects its benevolent reputation. Sage has one of the longer lists as a healing and cosmetic herb 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 believes it is the star of the kitchen, and for most dishes, it is often best used on its own, as it has been described as a bit of a prima donna and likes to have centerstage to itself.

Jane McLeod is a Master Gardener through the CSU Extension Routt County. Call 970-879-0825 with questions.

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