Cooking sage | Growing sage | Sowing | Planting | Picking | Trimming | Pests
The botanical name for sage - salvia - refers to the use of this plant for external healing. For hundreds of years, probably longer, sage has been a standard kitchen herb, one of the old reliables -parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme. It is native to southern Europe but grows well in northern climates too. It is a shrubby plant, not woody enough to be a shrub yet having a woody base to its stems. It is very easy to grow and because it is a decorative plant in its own right, it need not be relegated to the vegetable garden.
A sage bush can be found a slot near the edge of a bed, or tumbling over a low retaining wall. The latter location is ideal because it likes good drainage and can die out in heavy, wet ground. Its heritage from the Mediterranean dictates that it also needs full sunlight. It flowers in June and July with dark blue-violet flowers. These are quite pretty and bear out the plant's ornamental credentials. The flowers are throated and tubular, typical of the mint family, of which it is a member along with other herbs such as mint and thyme.
Sage has anti-microbial action, relaxes the stomach muscles and aids digestion. It contains anti-oxidants which reduces cancer risk. It is a very versatile herb and may be used with a lot of different foods. Roughly chopped sage goes very well fried in some butter and mixed with pasta and parmesan cheese, or deep fried and added to a nice feta cheese and lettuce salad.
Sage is easily grown for seed. The culinary sage is Salvia officinalis - plain grey green leaves. The seed can be sown in late spring or early summer, directly into fine soil in an open seed bed, or in a seed tray or pot. The seedlings can be thinned in the open or pricked out to a wider spacing from a pot.
Plant at any time of year, but especially as growth is active in late spring. Plants are widely available in garden centres and these can be planted as soon as they are bought and watered to start them off. The purple-leaved form is popular as a decorative plant and it is adequate for kitchen use but not as good for flavour.
Pick the tips of the shoots, taking about four or five leaves on a sprig. These can be used even from young plants, because it gives them a good bushy shape. Continue to use it right through the year. The older leaves are usually shed in winter, but there are always some small leaves at the shoot tips.
The bush can be lightly trimmed over after flowering, or even before flowering if the leaves are wanted.
Sage is relatively free of pests. It can be attacked by greenflies and by greenfly-like suckers. These can be simply washed off before use or if necessary use a thorough derris spray to clear the bush. Derris is plant-based and it breaks down in a day or less.