How to Grow Sage

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  • Sage, known for its woolly oblong leaves and musky smell, is one of the easiest herbs to grown in containers, flower beds or your garden
  • You can start sage from seeds, root cuttings or transplants and it will thrive with plenty of sunshine, good drainage and air circulation
  • While culinary sage is known to pair well with meats, particularly poultry, many ornamental varieties of sage also exist, allowing you to create colorful borders and edging in your garden or yard
  • Beyond its culinary uses, sage has medicinal value to aid digestion, boost cognitive function, manage diabetes and treat inflammation, among others
  • Sage essential oil and its cousin clary sage essential oil are useful in aromatherapy, baths and massage

By Dr. Mercola

Known for its woolly oblong leaves and musky smell, sage (Salvia officinalis) is one of the easiest herbs to grow. While its ornamental varieties are also popular, sage is best known in its culinary form as a complement to poultry and other meat dishes. In the U.S., a mention of sage is likely to evoke memories of Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing, two dishes in which sage often features prominently.

Beyond its culinary uses, sage has medicinal value to aid digestion, boost cognitive function, manage diabetes and treat inflammation, among others. Fortunately, it is one of the easiest perennial herbs to grow. If you are able to provide plenty of sunshine, good drainage and air circulation, you should consider growing sage.

Options for Starting Sage

Starting sage plants couldn’t be easier, and you have three options:1,2

Seed: Sage seed must be sown while fresh. Not only does it not store well, but also, even when the seed is fresh, sage is a relatively slow and poor germinator. When planting indoors, place three seeds in a cell to ensure you get a decent amount of viable seedlings.

Root cuttings: You can grow another sage plant by clipping a 3-inch portion from the very tip of an existing mature stem and placing it in moist potting mix or vermiculite. In about six weeks, roots will emerge. Another option is layering,3 which involves securing a bendable stem from an existing plant to the ground using a piece of wire or rocks.

Before covering it with dirt, make a small nick in the bent stem where you want the roots to grow. You can wait a couple of months or a whole season before separating the new plant from the original.

Transplants:4 If you want to get a head start on the growing season, plant sage seeds in a starter soil mix and maintain them under grow lights for six to eight weeks before the last frost in your area. The seeds will take about three weeks to germinate. Another option is to purchase established transplants from your local garden center or nursery.

Transplant the strongest seedlings outdoors after all danger of frost has passed or, if you have an indoor area receiving direct sunshine, you can maintain your plants in pots indoors.

How to Cultivate Sage

Sage plants, both the culinary (common) and ornamental varieties, will be perennial if you live in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) hardiness zones 5 to 9. Common sage is known to be a bit hardier than the more ornamental varieties like golden, purple and tricolor sage. While it’s difficult to make mistakes with such a hardy, easy-to-grow herb like sage, below are some planting tips to ensure your success:5,6

  • Soil: Sage will do best in loamy, sandy, well-drained soil. It prefers a pH between 6.0 and 7.0. While fertilizer will accelerate plant growth, too much will diminish the herb’s naturally intense flavor. To enhance growth, consider side dressing your plants with organic compost in the spring.
  • Spacing: Because sage grows in a round, bush-like fashion — mature plants can reach 1 to 2 feet tall and 2 to 3 feet wide — space plants about 24 to 36 inches apart.
  • Sun: For healthy plants, give sage full sun. In hot zones, USDA zone 8 or higher, some afternoon shade is OK, but plants need sun or a breeze to keep the leaves dry and prevent rotting. When growing sage indoors, place pots near a sunny window.
  • Water: Sage is a decently drought-tolerant herb and needs water only occasionally, when the soil is dry. Leaves will mildew if allowed to sit damp, so resist the temptation to overwater.

More Tips About Growing Sage

Sage is hardy and can survive cool weather and even a bit of frost. When transplanting sage into your garden, keep in mind it will thrive near cabbage, carrots, strawberries and tomatoes. Below are some additional tips to consider when growing sage:7,8

  • To attract pollinators like bees and butterflies, it’s best to grow more than one sage plant and to allow a couple of them to flower.
  • During the first year, depending on growing conditions and plant size, sage may or may not bloom. If it does bloom, spikes of purple/blue flowers will appear in midsummer.
  • To help the plant become established, do not harvest any leaves the first year. In the second year and beyond, you can harvest the leaves at any time. Some suggest the best flavor is found in leaves harvested before or just after the plant blooms.
  • Prune your sage plants after they flower to keep the plants shapely and to prevent them from getting too leggy and woody.

Tending Your Plants and Using Sage

Fortunately, few pests bother sage. It is more likely to suffer from overwatering, insufficient sunlight or lack of pruning than insects or disease. You can prevent some of the woodiness with frequent harvesting and pruning, which will help reinvigorate your plants. To protect healthy plants from overgrowth, divide them annually in spring or fall and cut them back to the ground in fall or early spring.9 You’ll find tender, new leaves to be more flavorful than older leaves from woody stems, so be sure to harvest regularly.

Due to its nature as a woody shrub, you’ll need to replace your sage plants every three to four years. If you have trouble keeping up with the fresh leaves, you can easily dry them for longer-term storage and use. You can also use dried leaves to make sage tea. Beyond its many culinary uses, you can use sage branches and leaves in wreaths and other crafts, where they add color, a pleasant scent. and texture.10

Leaf Maturity Affects the Flavor of Sage

Similar to other herbs, the flavor of sage depends on the variety you choose to plant and the maturity of the leaves at the time of harvest. According to Mother Earth News,11 the best time to harvest fresh sage leaves is in the spring, when they are young and release a lively — almost lemony — flavor. Its unique springtime flavor combines well with mint and is further embodied by the addition of fresh lemon juice.

Sage leaves plucked in summer are characterized by a more robust flavor known to enliven herbal blends. Marjoram, parsley, oregano, rosemary and thyme are a few of the herbs well suited to sage. The fall season may be a high point for sage given the savory aroma it brings to meats, stuffing and squash dishes. Sage complements well with lamb, pork and poultry.

Due to its strong flavor, sage (similar to rosemary) can easily become overpowering. As a result, use sage sparingly in herbal blends. Start with a small amount and gradually increase it to achieve your desired taste. Near the end of the growing season, sage leaves can become rough and chewy, so be sure to mince them finely. You can receive all the flavor of sage without serving it in the final dish by adding sprigs of it during the cooking process and removing them prior to serving.

Try These Varieties and Enjoy Sage as an Ornamental Plant

If you enjoy ornamental plants and want to add some color and variety to your garden, flower beds or patio, the golden, purple and tricolor varieties make excellent choices for use as borders or edging. Sage is easy to grow in containers as well, adding a splash of color to your deck or patio. In addition to common sage, try one of the following varieties:12

  • Aurea: This compact grower features soft yellow leaves and purple flowers
  • Purple: Characterized by young leaves of deep purple that mature to a rich burgundy
  • Tricolor: Although smaller than common sage plants, the variegation of its green, white and pink/purple leaves make it an ornamental beauty, with the benefits of a culinary herb

When using sage as an ornamental plant in your flower beds or garden, you’ll want to consider companion plants known to combine well in terms of color and size. Rodale’s Organic Life presents a few options for including sage in a larger arrangement of ornamental plants:13

  • Anise sage: Surround these varieties with tropicals such as cannas, coleuses and elephant ears
  • Autumn sage: Place this type in borders or prairie gardens with asters, grasses, lavenders, ornamental onions, sundrops, verbenas and winecups
  • Culinary sage: Plant it in containers, herb gardens or alongside ornamental plants; in containers, you can contrast its rich colors with bronze-leaved New Zealand hairy sedge, diascias and African daisy hybrids
  • Meadow sage: Situate this variety with black-eyed Susans, catmints, daisies, daylilies, mums, ornamental grasses, stonecrops, tickseeds, yarrows and yucca

Health Benefits of Sage

Originating from the Mediterranean region, sage has been used as a medicine for thousands of years. A rich source of polyphenol compounds, sage contains more than 160 identified polyphenols, comprising an array of flavonoids and phenolic acids, including caffeic acid and its derivatives, lithospermic acid, rosmarinic acid, sagecoumarin, sagernic acid, salvianolic acids and yunnaneic acids.14 Sage boasts the following health benefits:15

Aids digestion

The rosmarinic acid found in sage acts as an anti-inflammatory agent, soothing your stomach and preventing gastric spasms. Sage can help reduce the incidence of diarrhea and gastritis.

Boosts cognitive function

Research has shown even small amounts of sage, taken as food or inhaled as an essential oil, can be an effective brain booster, increasing concentration, memory recall and retention. In vitro and animal studies have confirmed several sage species contain active compounds shown to enhance cognitive activity and protect against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia.16

Improves bone health

Sage contains a superior level of vitamin K, which along with its high calcium content supports strong bones and teeth. One tablespoon of sage contains roughly 43 percent of your recommended dietary allowance of vitamin K.  

Aids diabetes management

Sage possesses compounds known to mimic the drugs typically prescribed for managing diabetes. As such, it appears to regulate and inhibit the release of stored glucose in your liver, which balances your blood sugar, helping to prevent Type 2 diabetes or assist in managing the condition if already present.

Authors of a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition17 said, “[I]ts effects on fasting glucose levels … and its metformin-like effects … suggest sage may be useful as a food supplement in the prevention of Type 2 diabetes mellitus by lowering the plasma glucose of individuals at risk.”

Promotes healthy skin

Given its many antioxidant properties, sage is useful to counteract the signs of aging such as age spots, fine lines and wrinkles. These antioxidants protect against free radicals known to damage your skin cells and cause premature aging. Some have had success using sage in the form of a tincture or topical salve to treat skin conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis.

Strengthens immunity

Sage contains antimicrobial properties researchers suggest, when applied in the form of an essential oil, is effective in inhibiting the growth of bacteria such as Staphylococcus aureus.18 In addition, sage is a natural expectorant and useful to clear mucus and reduce coughs.19 Consider adding a drop of sage essential oil to a cup of tea or hot water the next time you have a cold.

Treats inflammation

Due to its antioxidant compounds, such as apigenin, luteolin and rosmarinic acid, sage helps neutralize free radicals and prevent them from creating oxidative stress in your body.20 Sage is effective with respect to inflammation that affects your brain, heart, joints, muscles, organ systems and skin. To reduce inflammation, chew fresh sage leaves, drink sage tea or apply a sage tincture.

Using Sage as an Essential Oil

When converted to an essential oil, sage provides several benefits. Similar to other essential oils, be sure to dilute sage oil with a carrier oil, such as coconut oil or olive oil, to avoid skin irritations. There are several ways to use sage essential oil (or its cousin clary sage).

In aromatherapy, it is used through a vaporizer as a means to calm your nerves, relax your mind and stimulate your senses. Sage oil can be used in a bath or incorporated into a massage oil to help relax muscles. When combined with a carrier oil and applied to your lower abdomen, sage essential oil can also help soothe menstrual cramps and pain.

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