Salvia officinalis (Sage, also called garden sage, common sage, or culinary sage) is a perennial, evergreen subshrub, with woody stems, grayish leaves, and blue to purplish flowers. It is a member of the mint family Lamiaceae and native to the Mediterranean region, though it has naturalized in many places throughout the world. It has a long history of medicinal and culinary use, and in modern times as an ornamental garden plant. The common name “sage” is also used for a number of related and unrelated species.
Salvia officinalis was described by Carl von Linnaeus from Sweden in 1753. It has been grown for centuries in the Old World for its food and healing properties, and was often described in old herbals for the many miraculous properties attributed to it. The specific epithet, officinalis, refers to the plant’s medicinal use—the officina was the traditional storeroom of a monastery where herbs and medicines were stored.
Cultivars are quite variable in size, leaf and flower color, and foliage pattern, with many variegated leaf types. The Old-World type grows to approximately 2 ft. (0.61 m) tall and wide, with lavender flowers most common, though they can also be white, pink, or purple. The plant flowers in late spring or summer. The leaves are oblong, ranging in size up to 2.5 in (6.4 cm) long by 1 in (2.5 cm) wide. Leaves are grey-green, rugose on the upper side, and nearly white underneath due to the many short soft hairs. Modern cultivars include leaves with purple, rose, cream, and yellow in many variegated combinations.
Salvia officinalis has been used since ancient times for warding off evil, snakebites, increasing women’s fertility, and more. 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.
The plant had a high reputation throughout the Middle Ages, with many sayings referring to its healing properties and value. It was sometimes called S. 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. John Gerard’s Herbal (1597) states 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 shaky trembling of the members.” In past centuries it was also used for hair care, insect bites and wasp stings, nervous conditions, mental conditions, oral preparations for inflammation of the mouth, tongue and throat, and also to reduce fevers.
In Britain, sage has for generations been listed as one of the essential herbs, along with parsley, rosemary, and thyme (as in the folk song “Scarborough Fair”). It has a savory, slightly peppery flavor. It appears in many European cuisines, notably Italian, Balkan and Middle Eastern cookery. In Italian cuisine, it is an essential condiment for saltimbocca and other dishes, favored with fish. In British and American cooking, it is traditionally served as sage and onion stuffing, an accompaniment to roast turkey or chicken at Christmas or Thanksgiving Day. Other dishes include pork casserole, Sage Derby cheese and Lincolnshire sausages. Despite the common use of traditional and available herbs in French cuisine, sage never found favor there. In the Levant it is commonly used as a flavor for chai (tea).