Savory and Savior
By Audrey Stallsmith
He who would live for aye
Must eat sage in May.
The musky scent of sage always makes me think of Thanksgiving. These days, the herb is generally only used to season stuffings and meat. But, by so limiting it, we may be missing something.
The ancients virtually rhapsodized over the life-extending properties of this plant. "He that would live for aye (forever)," they said, "must eat sage in May." And, "why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?" In 1699, one John Evelyn commented extravagantly, "'Tis a plant, indeed, with so many and wonderful properties as that the assiduous use of it is said to render men immortal."
Since, as far as I know, John isn't around these days, I think we will have to modify that claim. But the voices singing sage's praises have been so many and enthusiastic that maybe it's time we allowed this herb out of the kitchen!
The official name, salvia, in fact, is derived from the Latin salver--"to save or heal"--and the plant was sometimes called salvia salvatrix or "Sage the Savior." The Chinese loved the health-promoting qualities of sage tea so much that they would give three times as much real tea in exchange for it.
The grandiflora (balsamic) type of sage is said to be the best for brewing. Some people like to add a bit of lemon or lime juice and honey to the cup. Hollanders, returning indoors after skating, often enjoyed a hot beverage made with sage and milk.
The most common culinary sage grows about a foot high with soft gray-green leaves and purple flowers. It prefers a warm, sheltered position in sun or partial shade. Though hardy, it often looks dead in the spring. Have patience, and it will sent out leaves from what appear to be dry twigs. Sage does eventually become quite woody, though, often sprouting only at the ends of the branches, so you may want to replant it every few years. It can be started from seeds or cuttings.
Gerard spoke of a different variety, "the leaves whereof are reddish; part of those red leaves are stripped with white, others mixed with white, greene, and red, even as Nature list to play with such plants." He calls it "painted" sage. This one is not so much seen these days, perhaps because, according to tradition, a person needed a "lucky hand" to make it flourish! It had to be propagated from cuttings, since plants started from seed would revert to the ordinary green.
Superstition holds that the plant will thrive or wither according to its owner's fortunes, so keep yours growing strong! Sage was also sown on graves because it was thought to assuage grief.
That wasn't all it assuaged. This herb treated virtually every disease known to man. An infusion was used as a gargle for sore throat, inflamed tonsils, or canker sores, and to prevent excess saliva. The tea relieved hoarseness and coughs, lung, liver, and kidney problems, head and joint aches. It also soothed the nerves, improved the memory, and cooled fevers.
A wash of black tea and sage applied to the scalp is supposed to darken the hair and eliminate dandruff. A sage poultice will stop bleeding, cleanse sores, and relieve inflammation or itching. The herb has also been employed to halt the milk flow in nursing mothers and to end profuse sweating.
In the Language of Flowers, sage stood for "domestic virtue," flavoring ales and cheeses as well as meats. In Mill on the Floss, Eliot compares a bonnet to "a sage cheese garnished with withered lettuces." Sage leaves were often eaten in a bread-and-butter sandwich as a spring tonic.
On second thought, perhaps it is not a bad thing to associate sage with Thanksgiving. That holiday is, after all, the day when we remember to be grateful for the often over-looked and life-sustaining "domestic virtues" of home and family.
"Sage, properly prepared," wrote Sir John Hill, "will retard that rapid progress of decay that treads upon our heels so fast in the latter years of life. . .and make the lamp of life, so long as nature lets it burn, burn brightly." Who could ask more from an herb than that?
Salvia officinalis image is from Kohler's Medizinal-Pflanzen, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.