Be a wise sage - and add this herb to your recipes.

Sage Tricolor Image by deluna from PixabaySage Tricolor Image by deluna from PixabaySage is quite the international herb, and in the kitchen it goes well in many dishes. It is also extremely healthy and a great antioxidant; and in the garden its lovely grey leaves complement many other plants.  Read more below on how to grow and use sage in the garden and home.

I hope you enjoy this excerpt from my new e-book “Growing Culinary Herbs in South Africa”. If you love herbs as much as I do, this book is sure to inspire you. Click here to order or read more.

You would d be a wise sage to add this herb to your recipes – although it’s a strongly aromatic and slightly bitter herb, sage can impart a soft, almost sweet, savoury flavour to dishes. Most people associate sage with turkey and stuffing, or perhaps you picked up its distinct flavour in Middle Eastern foods like lamb and onion kebabs. It even goes well with cheese, and the English have long made a delicious sage-flecked cheese known as "Sage Derby", so if you are not that familiar with this herb and its uses, be inspired by its unusual flavour, there are so many wonderful dishes in which it is used.

Sage is a member of the mint family and grows wild along the northern shores of the Mediterranean (Iberia and the Balkans) and northern Africa. Its thick, velvety leaves are a beautiful soft grey, making it an attractive garden plant, and its striking violet-blue, pink or white flowers are an added bonus. It has been held in high regard throughout history for its medicinal properties, and its reputation as a “panacea” - a solution or remedy for all difficulties or diseases - is even represented in its scientific name, Salvia officinalis. The name Salvia comes from the Latin word “salvare” meaning ‘to heal’ and “salvere” which means ‘to be healthy’. The species name officinalis refers to its use in medicines.

The ancient Greeks and Romans highly prized its many healing properties, and the Romans treated it as sacred, taking it with them into all the lands they conquered. These civilisations also used sage as a preservative for meat, a tradition that continued until the beginning of refrigeration. What these cultures knew from experience, that sage could help to reduce spoilage, is now being confirmed by science, which has isolated the herb's numerous terpene antioxidants.

Old World Herbals often described the many miraculous properties attributed to sage, and it was one of the ingredients of “four thieves’ vinegar” - a blend of herbs which was supposed to ward off the plague. Europeans living in the 14th century used strong smelling plants for the purposes of ritual, and to protect themselves from witchcraft. Sage was considered to be a magical plant of the highest order, and still is today. Dried, it was even smoked in pipes, and is still enjoyed by many smokers today.

In ancient Egypt sage was listed in the Ebers Papyrus (1500 BC) as a remedy for itching, and Arab physicians of the 10th century believed that it promoted immortality. In China sage was much appreciated for the delicious ‘tea’ it made, and a lovely story from that time says that this tea became so popular that three cases of real tea leaves (camellia sinensis) were traded to the Dutch for a single case of sage leaves!

Sage flowersSage flowers Health Benefits:

Sage has been grown for hundreds of years in England, France, and Germany, and oil extracted from it is used in both the culinary and pharmaceutical industries. Out of the many health benefits of sage, some of the most important include its ability to improve brain function, lower inflammation throughout the body, prevent chronic diseases, boost the strength of the immune system, regulate proper digestion, alleviate skin conditions, increase the health and strength of bones, slow the onset of cognitive disorders, and prevent the onset of diabetes.

One of the most overlooked benefits of sage is its superior level of vitamin K, which is a crucial element in developing bone density and ensuring the integrity of our bones as we age.  Also, research has shown that even small amounts of sage, whether smelled or consumed, can increase recall abilities and memory retention in subjects. Because of these abilities, research into applications for treating patients with Alzheimer’s and dementia is currently being done, and although still in the relatively early stages, seems promising.

Because sage contains certain extracts and chemicals that mimic the drugs typically prescribed for managing diabetes, and it appears to regulate and inhibit the release of stored glucose in the liver, preventing major fluctuations of blood sugar, sage can help to prevent the onset of type-2 diabetes.

Like rosemary, sage contains a variety of volatile oils, flavonoids and phenolic acids, including the phenolic acid, named after rosemary (rosmarinic acid). These are responsible for its anti-inflammatory qualities and why it is used to treat inflammation of the respiratory or gastrointestinal tracts, arthritis and gout, as well as general inflammation.

Many chronic conditions and degenerative diseases are caused by free radicals - the dangerous by-products of cellular metabolism that attack healthy cells. The antioxidant compounds found in sage work to neutralize free radicals and prevent them from creating oxidative stress in the heart, organ systems, skin, joints, muscles, and even the brain.

In the Kitchen:

The colour of downy sage leaves and their flavour varies, but in essence sage is a very strongly aromatic and slightly bitter herb that can withstand long cooking times without losing its flavour. Whenever possible, choose fresh sage over the dried form since it is superior in flavour. Always remember, just like Rosemary, the flavour of sage is strong, so little goes a long way!

Sage is quite the international herb because it goes well with pork, beef, duck and chicken recipes - fatty meats in particular - and will aid in the digestion of these foods. Although sage is uncommon in French cookery, the Italians love it, especially with veal. It is also simply delicious chopped and mixed with melted butter before being stirred into pasta or gnocchi. Sage is added to stuffing’s, cured meats, sausages, and pork dishes; The Germans love to add it to sausages; the Americans associate it with turkey and dressing; and in the Middle East it is threaded with lamb and onions on kebabs.

Sage is also delicious with onion and cheese dishes and is a favourite for rich and creamy sauces. A sage-cheese spread can be made by beating 4 teaspoons of fresh or 3 teaspoons of dried sage leaves and a few drops of lemon juice, into a tub of cream cheese. Even adding a few very finely chopped fresh sage leaves to your next grilled cheddar cheese sandwich, may delight you.

For a creamy onion and sage side dish, bake small boiling onions in a sauce made with sage, parsley, paprika, lemon juice, lemon rind, mushrooms, butter and milk. Another great way to use this herb is by halving tomatoes and then buttering and piling them with small mounds of sage, before baking them until tender. These baked tomatoes go extremely well with grilled pork chops, and even eggplants are delicious done this way. Sage also pairs well with egg dishes, and is great in dumplings and savoury scones. Fresh sage leaves can even be made into a delicious snack by dipping them into a light batter before deep-frying them.

To store fresh sage leaves, carefully wrap them in a damp paper towel and place inside a loosely closed plastic bag. Store in the refrigerator where they should keep fresh for several days. Dried sage should be kept in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark and dry place where it will keep fresh for about six months. Fresh leaves can also be finely chopped and frozen in a little water, like ice cubes.

Companion Planting:

Sage is wonderful to plant in perennial flower or shrub borders where it’s lovely leaves compliment the shades of so many flowering plants. It loves to grow with rosemary, and makes a good companion plant for vegetables like cabbage and carrots because it helps to repel the cabbage moth, carrot fly, and white flies.

Sage 'Purpurascens'Sage 'Purpurascens'Cultivation:

Salvia officinalis is a shrubby evergreen perennial plant, which can live to be 15 to 20 years old, although for culinary and medicinal purposes the plants are usually replaced every 4 to 5 years.  The long, aromatic, velvety leaves are a beautiful soft grey, but sage has been cultivated for ages, so many exciting new garden varieties have been developed. Red Sage (Salvia officinalis ‘Purpurascens’) has soft purple leaves; ‘Icterina’ is a golden sage, and ‘Tricolor’ has gorgeous leaves splashed with pink, white and green, but is unfortunately not as hardy as the other varieties. The forms are also variously scented and flavoured, so sample them to find your own favourites.

Sage is easy to grow both inland and at the coast, tolerating very harsh conditions like windy seashore exposure as well as moderate frost.  It does not, however, tolerate cold, wet conditions. Ideally, the planting site should be warm, dry, and protected from wind.

Although sage will adapt to most light, fertile garden soils which drain well, it thrives in soils with a pH between 6.5 and 7.0. Plant it in full sun, as the plants require warm temperatures and ample sunlight in order to produce a high content of essential oils in the leaves.

Sage grows quickly to approximately 50 to 60cm tall and 40 to 50cm wide, and is easy to grow in a pot.  Always water moderately because the plant does not like ‘wet feet,’ and trim after flowering to prevent leggy plants. 

Harvesting:

Sage is best harvested just before flowering when the essential oil content of the leaves is highest. Harvest by cutting the top 20cm of tender growth with a sharp knife, and hang, or lay on racks, to dry in a cool place.

Propagation:

Sage is usually sold in garden centres in small herb pots, which are cost effective for the average family to plant for culinary use, but if you wish to use sage in garden beds, sowing seeds will save you a lot of cash. Seeds should be sown into seedling trays in spring after all danger of frost has passed.

Softwood cuttings taken in spring, or semi-hardwood cuttings taken in late summer also root easily, and divisions and air layering are a successful means of propagating sage from established plants.

Problems, Pests & Diseases:

If grown in full sun and in well-drained soils, sage is usually a carefree herb to grow in the garden, but can succumb to pests like slugs and spider mites. In waterlogged soil it is susceptible to root rot and wilt.

It is, unfortunately, susceptible to galls growing on the roots and the root crown, just below the soil line, and even occasionally on the stems. They can be various sizes, and are initially light coloured bulges which grow larger and darken. They may also be soft and spongy, or hard. If galling is severe, and girdles the stem, then the plants may dry out and die. Because the disease enters through wounds on the plant; avoid damaging the plants as much as possible, and purchase only disease-free plants and seeds.

During warm, wet spells, sage may also succumb to mint rust; showing as small, dusty, bright orange, yellow or brown pustules on the undersides of the leaves. Infected plants can be sprayed with a suitable fungicide, but organic gardeners often opt to remove and destroy infected plants, or, if the disease is mild, to cut out the infected leaves. Any rust-infected plant material should be burned or bagged. Thinning your plants correctly to allow for better air circulation, and always watering the base of the plant to prevent wetting the leaves, will help prevent rust fungus.

Caution:

Sage is considered safe in cooking. Although there is no measurable amount of oxalates or purines, nor is sage considered a typically allergenic herb, it does belong to the mint family, so those who suffer from allergic reactions to members of that extensive plant family should consult a doctor before adding sage to their dietary, or supplementation regimen.