Saturday, May 21, 2011

Salvia officinalis - Sage

Salvia officinalis - Sage, also know as Garden Sage, Common Sage, Kitchen Sage, True Sage, Red Sage, Culinary Sage, Dalmatian Sage, Broadleaf Sage, and Salvia salvatrix.  The name of the genus, Salvia, is derived from the Latin salvere (to save), referring to the healing properties attributed to the various Salvia species. This name was corrupted popularly to Sauja and Sauge (the French form), in Old English, 'Sawge,' which has become our present-day name of Sage. 

Salvia officinalis is a small, perennial, evergreen subshrub, with woody stems, grayish leaves, and blue to purplish flowers.  It is native to the Mediterranean region, though it has naturalized in many places throughout the world.  Sage has a long history of medicinal, culinary and ornamental use. It has been used since ancient times for warding off evil, snakebites, increasing women's fertility, and more. The Romans likely introduced it to Europe from Egypt as a medicinal herb.

Sage grows about a foot or more high, with wiry stems. The leaves are set in pairs on the stem and are 1 1/2 to 2 inches long, stalked, oblong, rounded at the ends, finely wrinkled by a strongly-marked network of veins on both sides, greyish-green in color, softly hairy and glandular beneath. The flowers bloom in August and are in whorls, purplish and the corollas lipped.  All parts of the plant have a strong odor and a warm, bitter, astringent taste, due to the volatile oil contained in the tissues.

Sage has been cultivated for centuries in Europe for its culinary and medicinal properties, and was often described in old world herbals for the many miraculous properties attributed to it. The name, officinalis, refers to the plant's medicinal use, the officina was the traditional storeroom of a monastery where herbs and medicines were stored.

The plant had a great reputation throughout the Middle Ages, with many sayings referring to its healing properties and value. It was sometimes called Salvia salvatrix (sage the savior), and was one of the ingredients of Four Thieves Vinegar, a blend of herbs which was supposed to ward off the plague.  Dioscorides, Pliny, and Galen all recommended sage as a diuretic, hemostatic, emmenagogue, and tonic. 

Sage has been recommended at one time or another for virtually every ailment by various herbals. Modern evidence shows possible uses as an antisweating agent, antibiotic, antifungal, astringent, antispasmodic, estrogenic, hypoglycemic, and tonic. In a double blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial, sage was found to be effective in the management of mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease.  Sage tends to have a drying effect and has even been used for excessive saliva production in those with Parkinson’s Disease.

Other medicinal uses include anxiety, asthma, blood clots, candida, colds, congestion, depression, diabetes, diarrhea, dandruff, dysmenorrhea, dyspepsia, fever, eczema, gingivitis, flatulence, flu, gray hair, insect bites, hot flashes, mouth sores, indigestion, insomnia, laryngitis, cystitis, lymphatic congestion, memory loss, menopause, migraine, night sweats, rheumatism, worms, spermatorrhea, staphylococcus, oily scalp, poison ivy, poison oak, psoriasis, and tonsillitis. 

As a kitchen herb, sage has a slight peppery flavor.  It improves the digestion of fatty foods and acts as a natural preservative.  Add Sage leaves sparingly to salads, beans, breads, stuffing, soups, stews, cheese dishes, fish and meat dishes. One can make Sage vinegar, Sage butter and Sage wine. Leaves and flowers can be candied.

In British cooking, it is used for flavoring fatty meats, Sage Derby cheese, poultry or pork stuffing, Lincolnshire sausage, and in sauces.  Sage is also used in Italian cooking, in the Balkans, and the Middle East.  Despite the common use of traditional and available herbs in French cuisine, sage never found favor there.

In 280 BC, Theophrastus wrote about two different sages, a wild undershrub he called sphakos, and a similar cultivated plant he called elelisphakos.  Pliny the Elder said the latter plant was called salvia by the Romans, and used as a diuretic, a local anesthetic for the skin, a styptic, and for other uses. 

Charlemagne recommended the plant for cultivation in the early Middle Ages, and during the Carolingian Empire it was cultivated in monastery gardens. Walafrid Strabo described it in his poem Hortulus as having a sweet scent and being useful for many human ailments, he went back to the Greek root for the name and called it lelifagus.

An old tradition recommends that Rue shall be planted among the Sage, so as to keep away noxious toads from the valued and cherished plants. Growing Sage in the Medieval garden was a sign of prosperity. It was believed that this plant would thrive or wither, just as the owner's business prospered or failed, and another tradition maintained that the wife rules the household when Sage grows vigorously in the garden.
In France, the herb is supposed to mitigate grief, and was customarily sown on churchyard graves.  A French saying states: 'Sage helps the nerves and by its powerful might, palsy is cured and fever put to flight.'  A saying from the Middle Ages states 'Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?'  And it was believed that the plant would thrive or wither, reflecting the owner's prosperity.  

Gerard said that "'Sage is singularly good for the head and brain, it quickeneth the senses and memory, strengtheneth the sinews, restoreth health to those that have the palsy, and taketh away shakey trembling of the members." 

In the wild Sage is found in Spain along the Mediterranean coast up to and including the east side of the Adriatic; it grows in profusion on the mountains and hills in Croatia and Dalmatia, and on the islands of Veglia and Cherso in Quarnero Gulf. 

Though more shrubby in appearance, wild Sage has a more penetrating odor, being more spicy and astringent than the cultivated plant. The best wild Sage grows on the islands of Veglia and Cherso, near Fiume, where the surrounding district is known as the Sage region. The collection of Sage forms an important cottage industry in Dalmatia. During its blooming season, the bees gather the nectar and genuine Sage honey commands a high price, owing to its flavor.

Seeds should be sown thinly indoors or in outdoor cold frames. Transplant when plants are large enough to move, setting them at least 18 inches apart, and providing a clean growing area. As the plants often exceed 3 feet in diameter, they should be planted at least that far apart.  Sage grows best in a soil comprised of a rich clay loam with an adequate supply of available nitrogen. It will tolerate a wide range of soil conditions, however, especially if they are well-draining and rich in nitrogen.

Sage is easily propagated through stem cuttings, which are easily rooted in sand and other rooting media and then planted in rows three feet apart.  Leaves should be harvested prior to blooming. Dry in a well-ventilated room on screens away from direct sunlight and then store in tight jars.

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