Sage and its Uses, Then and Now
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on January 29, 2009. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Hog killing day in Mississippi during the days of my childhood was an important occasion. On this day, meat was put away to feed a large and growing family. On the first cold day of winter, Daddy invited Granny and Papa to come help butcher and process the hog. After the hog was killed, we spent all day processing the meat and getting it ready for the smokehouse or pork barrel. We made new cracklings and sausages. The iron wash pots were used to render the fat that was our major source of lard. Huge hams and slabs of bacon were salted and hung in the smokehouse where they were smoked for days with hickory limbs gathered from the woods.
I remember that sage was a necessary part of this process. Mother kept a patch of it growing on a sunny hillside near the house, and it was always ready when she needed it. This sage was harvested during hog killing time and used to season the fresh sausage and the hogshead cheese that she and Granny made.
Though I don't still process my own pork, I usually have sage in the herb garden. I stuff a few pieces between the skin and meat of the Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys and use a bit in my cornbread dressing. Amiable Spouse and I like it in the pheasant and quail that he brings home from his hunts.
Garden sage is grown and used almost worldwide. Americans use it for seasoning a variety of foods including pork sausage and poultry. We add it to egg dishes, soups, vegetables, and to flavor vinegars and tea. The Russians use it when baking the goose, and the English are fond of it in cheese. In Yugoslavia, it is an important export. Fields of it are planted and harvested like hay three times a year. The Chinese value it for tea and its curative properties. Colonists often used sage to help cure meats, for it has antibacterial properties. More recently, distilled sage extracts have been used to increase the shelf life of foods. The stability of soy oil and potato chips has been improved by using tasteless and odorless antioxidants prepared from sage and rosemary.
The Ancients believed that sage increased mental capacity and longevity. It has been used to treat snakebite, to cure warts and epilepsy, and for insomnia, measles, seasickness, and worms. In more recent history, antiseptic properties have made it useful in treating a range of irritations from sore throats to cuts and bruises. Research shows that it lowers blood sugar in diabetics.
Though sage is perennial in most of the country and hardy in Zones 5 to 10, the summer heat and humidity of the deep South often contribute to its demise. New plants set out in fall grow and remain evergreen during the winter and last through much of the summer. From these, enough leaves can be harvested and dried to have a constant supply for the kitchen. I guess that's not too bad a record. Growers in other parts of the country recommend replacing sage every third or fourth year, anyway. It becomes woody and less vigorous as it ages.
Consider adding some sage to your garden. It grows well not only in a sunny place in the garden, but it is a good subject for a container plant. A sunny patio will support not only sage, but several other herbs that will add interest to the patio and flavor to your meals. Choose a good sized container and fill it with well-drained potting mix. Sprinkle a bit of slow-release fertilizer on the surface of the soil and place a nursery-grown plant in the center. Water as needed to maintain moisture, but don't over-do. Clip leaves as needed.
Kinds of Sage
Common sage (Salvia officinalis) is an attractive plant in the garden. Silver green leaves provide a pleasant color contrast for darker green plants. Cultivars are available, however, for different color effects in the garden. ‘Aurea', or golden sage, has leaves edged in chartreuse and cream. ‘Purpurea' has purple foliage, and ‘Tricolor' has purple and white streaks in its green leaves. All are equally well suited for the kitchen. Many other cultivars are available, so gardeners can choose one that suits their needs.
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