(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on August 19, 2010. 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.)
Sage plants are a wonderful addition to your edible and fragrant landscaping. Most grow into larger specimens, as herbs go, and they make a nice contrast with rosemary along the back of a low border. Some are silvery, others variegated with cream or touched with purple, and some have bright blooms. All are fragrant and can add a note of interest to your table as well as to your garden.
All sages are Salvias, but not all Salvias are sages. Salvias are great garden plants also; I've scattered them throughout my perennial bed and even concentrated them in a "salvia corner." For now, we will focus on varieties of Salvia officinalis, the culinary herb known as "garden sage," and on Salvia elegans, with its bright and flavorful blooms.
My favorite herb nursery carries a large array of sages. Some of the purple-leafed or variegated varieties are a bit tender for my zone 6 garden, but most will overwinter well. Like most herbs, sage appreciates full sun and good drainage. Depending on where you plant it, sage may even be evergreen thought the winter, making it a great choice for a "landscape" bed as well as for your herb garden.
Pinching sage stems back by as much as a third every so often improves branching and shape. Pinching also gives you a bounty of fresh leaves for your kitchen or to add to a bowl of herbal potpourri. Sage leaves don't like to be damp, so prune away some branches entirely for good air circulation, especially in humid areas. Water from the bottom rather than sprinkling from above, when possible. Like lavender, sage would probably appreciate a mulch of light colored pea gravel, to reflect light and heat back up into the plant.
The base color for most sages is the cool green shade loved by interior decorators, but you'll find variations on this theme. For more dramatic foliage, try variegated varieties like gold-edged ‘Aurea‘ or ‘Icterina'. Other sages have purple leaves like ‘Purpurascens'. If you vote for "all of the above" when choosing plants, you'll love ‘Tricolor' sage, splashed with both purple and cream. These variegated plants can all be used in the kitchen. They rarely flower, but pinch them back regularly anyway for best growth.
Sages grown as much for their flowers as their leaves include ‘Albiflora' (white), ‘Rosea' (pink) and ‘Blue-flowered' sage. If you want to see some real flower power, try one of the tender Salvia elegans varieties. The bright red blooms of ‘Pineapple-scented' sage add punch to your garden and can be sprinkled across a salad like confetti. Hummingbirds are crazy about sage blooms. In addition to the flowers, try a few chopped leaves of fruit-scented sage in a summer fruit salads.
The sweet, lightly spicy blooms can be used in baked goods, too, such as Ladygardener1's Pineapple Sage Cake. You could surely substitute the leaves and blooms of ‘Melon' Sage or another fruit-scented sage, but don't try making this with one of the strongly flavored Salvia officinalis plants.
Ladygardener1 says, "This is a recipe for the home gardener, as I have not seen pineapple sage fresh and blooming in the grocery store. But if you grow the plant this is the recipe to show off your talents. The bright red flowers add that bit of wow to this cake!"
1 cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons chopped pineapple sage leaves (the small, new leaves are best)
3 tablespoons coarsely chopped pineapple sage flowers, if available
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
4 tablespoons well drained crushed pineapple
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 cups flour
Preheat oven to 325°F. Grease and flour loaf pan(s).
Cream the butter and sugar until very light and fluffy. Beat in the honey. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for one minute after each. Stir in the sage leaves, flowers, lemon peel, and crushed pineapple.
Whisk the dry ingredients together and add to the butter mixture. Fold together gently, until batter is just blended.
Pour into loaf pan(s).
Bake for approximately 45 minutes (a little less for mini loaves). Cakes should be golden brown and spring back to the touch when done. A wooden pick inserted into the center will come out clean.
Thanks for sharing this recipe, LadyG!
If I could grow only one sage, I would choose ‘Berggarten'. Herb guru Tom DeBaggio recommended it to me years ago, and he was right about it being the best for cooking. The leaves are strongly flavored but without the resinous taste of some varieties. Its soft, silvery leaves form a beautiful backdrop to more colorful garden plants. Its compact form makes it suitable for containers, also.
Garden sage makes a wonderful addition to savory dishes. Sage dressing is a traditional part of many Thanksgiving turkey dinners. My mother-in-law's famous holiday ham is studded with fresh herbs, and she always includes sage leaves. Try adding a little minced sage to cornbread. My favorite way to use sage leaves is to brown them in butter as a delicate sauce for pasta or rice. Sage Butter Noodles are a delicious accompaniment to grilled pork chops, and your family will fight over the crispy browned leaves.
25 or more tender sage leaves, stems trimmed
1 stick (½ cup) salted butter (use real butter if possible)
1 package egg noodles (12 oz to 1 pound), cooked and drained
Melt the butter over medium-high heat until it foams. (I use a 12 inch skillet, which gives me room to toss the pasta with the sauce.) Add the sage leaves and stir gently. Turn the heat down to medium-low. You'll notice the leaves turning deep green as they get into the hot butter. The fragrance will make you drool!
Continue cooking and stirring gently every minute or so, until the butter turns nut-brown. Remove the crispy sage leaves to a small plate (don't throw them out!). Add the cooked, drained pasta to the pan and toss to coat with the flavored, browned butter. Plate the pasta and top with the delectable crispy leaves.
Herbs play a big role in fragrant gardening and edible landscaping. Many, like creeping thymes and basils, make good fillers or edging plants. Sage plants are larger and can be quite striking, so plan to use them as accent or specimen plantings. Whether your tastes run to the sweet or the savory, sages are fragrant and handsome additions to your garden!
Photos by Jill M. Nicolaus. Move your mouse over images and links for more information: let the cursor hover for a few seconds, and a pop-up caption will appear.
For more growing tips and recipe ideas, see Jan Recchio's article, The ‘seasoned' gardener cooks with sage.
For more on sage culture and properties, see The Big Book of Herbs, by Arthur O. Tucker and Thomas DeBaggio. You'll also find excellent information in the DeBaggio's Herb Farm & Nursery catalog (regrettably, they don't ship plants).