Monday, July 5, 2010

The Saving Graces Of Sage

"Sweet-smelling sage grows in abundance right at the front of my garden.  It has a forceful energy and produces a healing drink.  Helpful with many human ailments, it merits eternal youth."  -- Hortulus, Walafrid Strabo (c. 808 – August 18, 849)

"Amongst my herbs, sage holds the place of honour; of good scent it is and full of virtue for many ills," opined the monk.

His subject was Salvia officinalis (pronounced SAL-vee-ah oh-fiss-ih-NAH-liss), an herb known since ancient times for its healing properties.  Salvia translated means "saving."  Officinalis means "official", referring to its inclusion in the materia medica - that body of knowledge now known as pharmacology.  It is popularly called "common sage."  But there's nothing common about it.  Common sage is an extraordinary gift that heals the body and graces the table.

The plant is native to the Mediterranean region.  It's a member of the Lamiaceae family which includes mints, lavender and rosemary.

As I've mentioned in other articles, Hippocrates is quoted as instructing, "Let your food be your medicine, and your medicine be your food."  So the species was and continues to be used as a flavoring and medicinal herb.  Salvia is rich in vitamins A, B-complex, C and numerous minerals.  It improves kidney and liver function and stimulates the circulatory system.  Antioxidant agents help to prevent carcinogenic compounds from forming.  Chemicals such as thujone are reputed to improve mental concentration.

If you are tempted to treat yourself with sage, I highly recommend you ask your doctor first.  This is particularly true of women who are pregnant.

Salvia is not a small genus.  Arguably S. officinalis is best known.  But there are between 700 and 900 species in the genus, including annuals, perennials, shrubs and sub-shrubs, making Salvia the largest genus in the Lamiaceae family.

It's well beyond the scope of this article to treat them all, so I'll mention only a few.
  • Salvia coccinea - Common name: Scarlet Sage, Hummingbird Sage, Texas Sage. A tender perennial.  Native to southern United States, Caribbean, Mexico, Central and South America.  Flower color: Red/variable.  Height: 18" to 24".  Hardiness:  USDA climate zones 7 - 10.  Exposure: Full sun to partial shade.  Use:  Ornamental.
  • Salvia divinorum - Common name: Diviners' Sage, Maria Pastora.  A tender perennial.  Native to Sierra Mazateca in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Flower color: Light blue/white.  Fragrance: Don't know.  Height: 6' to 8'.  Hardiness: USDA climate zones 10 - 11.  Exposure: Shade.  Use:  Messes with the mind, calms anxiety.  Note:  Illegal in some states unless used for ornamental purposes.
  • Salvia elegans - Common name: Pineapple Sage.  A tender perennial.  Native to mountains of Guatemala and Mexico.  Flower color: Red.  Fragrance: Pineapple.  Height: 36" to 48".  Hardiness:  USDA climate zones 8 - 11.  Exposure:  Full sun.  Use: Ornamental, tea, anti-depressant.
  • Salvia farinacea - Common name: Mealy-cup Sage.  A tender perennial.  Native to Mexico.  Flower color: blue or white.  Height: 24".  Hardiness: USDA climate zones  8 - 11. Use:  Ornamental.
  • Salvia guaranitica - Common name: Brazilian Sage, Hummingbird Sage.  A tender perennial.  Native to South America.  Flower color: Dark blue. Height: 24" to 48".  Hardiness: USDA climate zones 7 - 11.  Use:  Ornamental.
  • Salvia hispanica - Common name: Chia.  Annual.  Native to Mexico and Guatemala.  Flower color: Light blue.  Height: 36".  Use: Beverage.
  • Salvia nemorosa - Common name: Meadow Sage. Perennial.  Native to central Europe and western Asia.  Flower color: Blue, white, pink.  Height: to 36".  Hardiness: USDA climate zones 5 - 10.  Use: Ornamental.
  • Salvia splendens - Common name: Scarlet Sage, Annual Salvia.  Annual.  Native to Brazil.  Flower color: Red, white, pink, salmon.  Height: 12".  Use: Ornamental.
As you have learned by now, there's a lot that you can do with salvia.  Don't forget, however, that the species have different properties.  You mustn't confuse them.

Herb gardens, fragrance gardens, hummingbird and butterfly gardens are not complete without salvia.  Salvia is also very effective in annual and mixed perennial borders for color and textural contrast.  If your growing space is limited, salvia performs well in containers.

Salvia guaranitica - Common name: Brazilian Sage, Hummingbird Sage

Salvia is generally heat-tolerant, often drought-tolerant, sometimes deer and rabbit resistant.  Particular tolerances, resistances, benefits and dangers depend upon the species.

Hardiness also varies by species.  Most require full sun and well-drained soils.  Take a soil sample, along with the name of the species you intend to grow, to your nearest Cooperative Extension Service office for proper analysis.

Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 6" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 10" deep.  Compost may be incorporated into the soil.  Incorporate 10-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of no more 2 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 4" to 6" of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants.

Plant spacing varies by species. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container.  Water the plants in the pots, then drain.  Place the plants into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the root balls. Do not cover entirely the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 1" deep.

Plant your salvia with other species having similar cultural requirements.  The greatest cause of failure for salvia is over-watering.

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