Growing Sage for Culinary and Medicinal Use

You'd be wise to add sage to your garden. Sage is one of the most ancient medicinal and culinary herbs known, sacred to the Romans, revered by the Chinese and said to cure almost anything that ailed you, improve your brain function and bring you immortality. It tastes good too. You can grow this miracle herb in your garden so that you are never without it.

Growing Sage
There are many plants in the salvia family to which culinary sage belongs, but the plant gardeners want for cooking and most medicinal uses is Salvia officinallis. Sage has silver-green, oval-shaped leaves with a rough texture. There are some varieties of culinary sage that have purple or golden leaves or variegated leaves. Sage is a short-lived perennial in most areas, becoming a semiwoody plant about three feet high. In northern gardens culinary sage rarely blooms. In southern areas you may see pinkish- purple blooms on long spikes in late summer. Because bees, butterflies and hummingbirds love the flowers of any member of the salvia family, you may want to leave some sage flowers on the plants to attract them. Cut the flowers off as they fade so the plant does not put energy into producing seeds.

You can start sage from seeds. Sow the seed about eight weeks before your last frost indoors in flats or pots. Transplant outside after danger of frost and space about 18 inches apart.

If you are looking for colored or variegated varieties, you will probably have to buy plants. Sage will start from tip cuttings also.

Sage needs full sun and well-drained soil to do well. Most varieties are hardy to Zone 5, but check hardiness before purchasing. In Zone 5, some winter protection is advised, especially if the sage plant is in an exposed area. In the spring, trim off any winter-killed branches and lightly fertilize. After four or five years you will probably need to replace your sage plant.

Choosing varieties
Bergarten, Holt's Mammoth, Extrakta and White Dalmation are all good culinary sages.

Tri-Color Sage has variegated leaves of purple, pink and white. Purple Sage has purplish-green leaves. These two are hardy to Zone 6. There is a Gold Sage whose leaves are solid gold and a Golden Sage whose leaves have gold edges. The gold sages are hardy only to Zone 7.

The colored sages don't have flavor as strong as the silver-green sages but can be used in cooking. Be careful when purchasing sage for cooking that you are not getting a purely ornamental variety, such as Pineapple Sage or Honey Melon Sage. These are grown for their flowers and scented leaves but have little medicinal or cooking value.

Using sage
Fresh sage has a slightly different taste than dried sage, lighter, with a lemony zing. Sage loses the citrus undertone when dried and other flavors in it become more prominent. Sage is a very strong herb and if you are not used to it, start with a small amount, especially when using dried sage. You can harvest fresh young leaves or small sprigs of sage to lay on meats such as chicken, veal and pork while it cooks. Dried sage is often used as a rub for meats. In earlier days this helped preserve the meat as well as flavor it. Sage leaves can be fried in butter and used as a sauce for gnocchi or pasta. Sage is used as a seasoning in sausage and in stuffing mixes for poultry or pork.

Harvest sage leaves at any time until about six weeks before you expect a hard freeze. This will give the plant time to harden off any shoots it produced in response to your last harvest.

You can dry sage by harvesting fresh stems with leaves and hanging them in a warm, dark place or in a dehydrator, microwave or oven. Make sure the sage is completely dried before storing or it may mold and taste musty. It may take longer than thin-leaved herbs. Store completely dried leaves in a clean glass container in a cool place. Sage leaves can also be frozen in water and will taste more like fresh sage when used than dried sage.

Although sage had a lot of medicinal uses in earlier times, it is not used much in herbal medicine today. Like many herbs, sage is high in antioxidants, flavonoids and other beneficial compounds. Antioxidants, of course, reduce inflammation and prolong cell life. Research has shown that sage is indeed helpful to the brain, improving memory in some studies. It's antibacterial properties have led to research using sage to improve the shelf life of cooking oils. Sage tea is sometimes used to treat colds and bronchial infections and to lower fevers. Sage tea is also used as a gargle for sore throat and to ease indigestion.

A sage tea that is cooled is used as a rinse for gray hair, darkening it while conditioning it. Sage is also used to scent soap and perfumes. Sage used to be a common ingredient in tooth powder, used to heal bleeding gums.

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Common sage is a semi-hardy perennial that grows to 2 feet high, depending on variety, and has purplish blue flowers. Numerous varieties include broadleaf, clary and pineapple.

Drying sage and other herbs is the perfect way to store your summer harvest for use throughout the year. Although nothing beats the taste of fresh sage, it can be awfully hard to find in the dead of winter and dried sage is a great alternative.

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