Sage – Characteristics, cultivation, use and curative effect

Sage plant
Sage plant © Stephan Budke

Garden sage (Salvia officinalis) is one of the oldest known medicinal plants. Already in antiquity and the Middle Ages it was so famous that at times only trusted people were ordered to collect the herb. Even today, sage is used to treat several medical conditions. In addition, it is a well-known and popular herb of the Mediterranean cuisine and is amongst other used for saltimbocca, entrecote or antipasti.

Profile of Sage:

Scientific name: Salvia officinalis

Plant family: mint family (Lamiaceae)

Other names: garden sage, common sage, salver, culinary sage

Sowing time / Planting time: February – May

Flowering period: May – July

Harvest time: April- September

Location: sunny

Soil quality: sandy, rather barren soil

Use as a medicinal herb: flu infections, inflammation of the throat, sweating (hyperhidrosis), gum disease, pimples

Use as spice herb: meat dishes, pasta, soups, salads, desserts

Plant characteristics and systematics of sage

Origin and distribution of the garden sage

The common sage is native to the Mediterranean. Already in antiquity and in the early Middle Ages, sage was introduced to other countries and cultivated as a medicinal herb. Today it is grown in many other countries, including southern France, Hungary or Croatia. The common sage is still found wild in many areas of Italy, especially along the Adriatic coast. It is found mainly in calcareous, rocky and sandy areas.

Plant order of sage

The garden sage (Salvia officinialis L.) belongs to the mint family (Lamiaceae) and also to the subfamily Nepetoideae. Thus, the plant is related to other known herbs such as savory, lavender or thyme.

The genus of sage plants (Salvia) is very rich in species. Some sources indicate that the genus includes more than 1000 species. Among other known sage species such as the meadow sage (Salvia pratense), which can also be found wild. Many other species of sage are cultivated as ornamentals in gardens, including e.g. the scarlet sage (Salvia splendens), the clary sage (Salvia sclarea) or the harvest sage (Salvia confertiflora).

Look and characteristics of sage


The garden sage is a perennial half-shrub, which usually reaches stature heights between 40 and 60 cm (15 to 24 inches). Under good habitat and climatic conditions, however, it can also reach heights of up to one meter (40 inches). The Mediterranean plant is persistent and adapted to dry and barren locations. The plant can root quite deeply and develop a distinct fine root system.


Sage forms elongated and almost egg-shaped leaves that emit a strong aromatic scent due to the contained essential oils. The leaves are provided with a white felt and hairy on both sides of the leaves. The start out to be four-edged and densely hairy stems grow with the time from bottom to top. As a rule, the upper leaves are shorter than the lower leaves.


The garden sage forms during flowering (May to mid-July) usually white or purple flowers. Occasionally the petals are also pale pink or whitish colored. The flowers with their typical lip shape are arranged in so-called beaters (similar to spikes). The upper lip has two lobes, in contrast to the lower lip, which has three lobes. The flower always has two stamens.


At the time of fruit ripening, garden sage forms small nut fruits. The fruits contain globular, dark brown to almost black seeds.

Sage flowers with a butterfly
Sage flowers with butterflies

Sage – cultivation and care

Garden sage is one of the most popular medicinal and culinary herbs found in many gardens and balconies. Like many Mediterranean herbs, there are a few peculiarities to consider if you want to enjoy a plant for a long time.


Sage grows best in full sun locations with poor soils. The garden soil or the substrate should be predominantly sandy and contain only a small to medium humus content. Very loamy soils must be worked up with aggregates such as lava or pumice. Soils that promote waterlogging or contain too many nutrients are strictly to be avoided. Corresponding gifts of garden lime and / or stones in the soil promote the growth.

Sage plants can also be cultivated well on the south side of balconies as a pot culture. However, typical herbal soils should not be used or at least mixed with about 20 to 40 percent sand. Clay pots prove to be a better planter compared to plastic pots.

Sowing and cultivation

The garden sage (Salvia officinalis) can be propagate both from seeds and cuttings. Sowing seeds takes place as preculture at the end of February on the sunny windowsill in the house or from May in the field. For outdoor cultivation, the beds should also be prepared for Mediterranean herbs (sandy, rather barren soil). The planting distance between the individual herbs should be at least 30 cm (12 in). Sage plants form a partially dense root system. As it is a light germ. the seeds need only be pressed slightly into the ground (about 0.5 – 1cm (0.2 – 0.4 in)). The germination time may take up to 16 days depending on the germination conditions.


For the propagation of cuttings, a strong shoot is cut off from an older mother plant and put directly into calcareous herbal soil. The cutting of offshoots is best done in the spring, because the plant here has the most strength to quickly close fresh wounds.


Sage is adapted to barren mountain landscapes in the Mediterranean, where regular rainfall is very rare. Accordingly, the semi-shrub needs relatively little water and has a large dryness tolerance. However, on prolonged dry and hot days, the plants should be moderately watered. A test that indicates whether it needs to be watered is as follows: Stick your finger in the ground to your fingernail. If the soil is already dry at this point, it needs to be watered. If there is still enough moisture in the soil, there is no need for.


Sage is just as frugal with regard to fertilization. Only at the beginning of the growing season in the spring fertilizer is worked into the soil. Suitable fertilizers are composts that are best mixed with sand. It is also recommended to add some rock flour (not more than 5% of the total substrate). Exceptions in the amount of fertilizer are specimens that have been bought in the supermarket, replanted and cultivated on the balcony or terrace. Here, the addition of fertilizer is recommended about one to two weeks after repotting. If the plants are repotted to the garden bed, a small dose of compost or worm humus is sufficient.


Sage is a fairly undemanding plant as far as site conditions are good. If one likes to grow plants for several years, then a strong pruning of the semi-shrub from the beginning of September is necessary. Here, all leafless branches and stems should be removed, as they would not survive the winter anyway.


The garden sage is one of the perennial herbs. Cold winters usually survive the herb without any problems. However, specimens growing in the garden should be covered with brushwood or foliage as a precaution. Kept in pot culture it will be brought into the house by the end of October. This overwinters best in the stairwell or conservatory. The same applies to the exotic species, for example: tricolor sage, fruit sage (Salvia dorisiana), Andean sage, lime sage or pineapple sage.


The best time to harvest sage is the time before flowering. With flowering, the aroma in the leaves is lost. Either the leaves are harvested generously at this time or the flowers are cut short. So the plant continues to grow vigorously without putting the power in the formation of seeds in the flowers.

Pests and diseases

Mildew and spider mites are the diseases most commonly affecting sage. Mostly, such fungal diseases are the result of overprotective care such as over-fertilization or high humidity in the soil. A home remedy helps against mildew. Dilute 1 amount of milk with 9 amounts of water and mix in a spray bottle. This mixture is used to treat the affected parts of the plant. In large-scale infestation, the plant should be cut generously. The cut then is disposed of with household waste. When put on the compost, there is a risk that the fungus will spread to other plants. Spider mites, including the red spider mite, become masters by treating sage with diatomaceous earth. Diatomaceous earth is an ecologically compatible insecticide that pests can not resist, unlike chemical insecticides.

Green leaves of sage
Green leaves of sage

Use of sage

Sage in the kitchen

As intense as the scent of sage is, is also the taste: pleasantly bitter and spicy. Not only the leaves are eaten, but also the blossoms are edible. In terms of taste, however, there are differences between the species, which are particularly emerge in the exotic species. For example, there is sage that has an aroma of either lime, pineapple, eucalyptus, guava, peach, honeydew melon or marzipan.

The plant has now established itself as an indispensable spice plant in numerous dishes. Especially the Italian cuisine is based on sage, for example, the obligatory sage leaf on the veal escalope à la Saltimbocca alla romana, as well as Ossobuco alla milanese and as a filling in ravioli. But salads (e.g. tomato salad), food with fish, chicken and pork, soups and cheese sauces get a special taste.

One of the simplest recipes, which contains sage as an ingredient, are its leaves swirled in butter (sage butter). For this, butter is melted in a pan; then the fresh leaves are heated in the pan until they become crisp. The liquid butter is excellent with pasta or gnocchi.

Although the aroma of freshly harvested leaves is the most intense, you can also fall back on the dried or frozen version. If sage is properly dried and properly sealed, it hardly loses aroma. Basically, there are slight differences in sheet size. Young leaves usually taste much milder than the older ones.

Sage as a medicinal herb

In the Middle Ages and early modern times

Hildegard von Bingen mentioned sage as a medicinal herb, which helps especially against loss of appetite. Also in other known herbal books, the herb is presented as an important medicinal herb and mentioned as a noble herb, which serves doctors and cooks as it were.

Sage combined with with thyme, rosemary and lavender, was an issue in the fight against the plague. Thieves rubbed on these herbs at the time of the plague and were able to plunder without being infected with the plague pathogens.

Other known diseases against which the medicinal plant was used were dysentery and the treatment of “rotten” skin ulcers. Likewise, it was used for itching, urinary problems, hypersomnia, pneumonia, cold, cramps, nervous restlessness and body aches.

Today’s medical use

Many of the treatment recommendations already described in the Middle Ages are still valid today. The ingredients contained in sage are effective to provide relief against many everyday ailments. The healing effect is based primarily on the containing tannins and bitter substances of the plant, which promote digestion, relieve bloating and combat stomach and intestinal cramps. Other important active ingredients are the numerous containing essential oils, which have antibacterial and partly antiviral properties.

Sage can be used for many ailments and diseases. These include:

  • bad breath
  • badly healing wounds
  • bleeding gums
  • bloating
  • bronchitis
  • catarrh
  • colds
  • constipation
  • cough
  • depressions
  • diabetes (supportive in mild cases)
  • diarrhea
  • eczema
  • erysipelas (also facial erysipelas)
  • gallen weakness
  • gingivitis
  • gout
  • hair loss
  • heavy sweating
  • hingles
  • hoarseness
  • hot flashes
  • indigestion
  • inhibits milk secretion
  • insect bites
  • leukorrhea (whitish discharge)
  • liver weakness
  • loss of appetite
  • lung weakness
  • menopausal symptoms
  • menstrual cramps
  • neurasthenia
  • night sweats
  • oral mucosal inflammation
  • overweight
  • painfully swollen breasts
  • pharyngitis
  • purulent ulcers
  • rheumatism
  • skin diseases
  • smoker’s cough
  • stomach troubles
  • sweaty feet
  • tonsillitis
  • weakness of memory
  • whooping cough
  • wounds

Sage is popular in the treatment against sweating (hyperhidrosis). Sage tea, if regularly drunk, can inhibit excessive sweat production. Probably the monoterpenes and some tannins, which are mainly contained in the leaves, help regulate sweat production.

Probably the application sage is known for is painful inflammatory complaints in the mouth and throat as well as in various dental diseases. For this purpose, rinses with sage, gargle with tea or special preparations with sextracts are recommended. It is not only anti-inflammatory, but also astringent, antiseptic and antispasmodic. These are all reasons why many toothpastes are enriched with sage and many cough drops contain it as an ingredient.

Preparation of Sage tea

  • put about 5 fresh leaves in a cup
  • if you do not have fresh leaves, also dried sage leaves will do
  • spill with hot water. about 250 ml (8 fl oz)
  • let steep (covered) for about 15 min.
  • do not drink more than two to three cups of this tea throughout the day
  • drink the tea always freshly brewed and as hot as possible

Sage can be used externally as a wash, for douching and for baths. It helps in this form against badly healing wounds, eczema and ulcers. The effect of insect bites can be mitigated. The tendency to sweat can be lowered by washes or baths, for example for foot sweat. Rinse with sage tea help against leukorrhea (white discharge). For inflammation of the oral mucosa and gingivitis you can rinse the mouth with the tea.

Due to the anti-inflammatory and antibacterial effect, it is also used in some products – especially natural cosmetics – for oily, greasy and spotty skin. Sage stimulates the regulation of excessive sebum production, clears the skin and fights bacteria that are associated with pimples and blemishes.

Furthermore, an anticarcinogenic effect could be detected in garden sage. One of the topics discussed is whether Salvia officinalis is used in the control of certain types of lymphoma and in leukemia. First studies could actually initiate cell death of tumor cells.

Side effects

Caution in view of the internal use is required for pregnant and nursing women. Sage contains estrogen-like compounds that can negatively affect pregnancy and prevent the milk flow of lactating mothers. Above all, sage oil should be avoided; Also, be careful when children eating large amounts. For mothers who want to stop breastfeeding, however, sage is highly recommended. Two to three cups of sage tea per day are recommended. The herb is considered one of the most popular natural possibility for weaning.


Ask your doctor or pharmacist. Visiting this page can not replace the visit to the doctor. For serious or unclear complaints, consult your doctor.

Buy Sage- What to pay attention?

Fresh plants can be found in almost every supermarket as well as at hardware stores and in plant centers. The quality is very different. Best are plants that have large leaves and are already slightly woody on the stem. These characteristics suggest that the plant was not treated with fertilizers. Light green plants that have rather unstable stems and only small leaves are usually inferior. Basically, it should be ensured that the leaves have no light or white spots (mildew). This is quite common for sage. In plant centers should also be paid attention to the botanical name, Salvia officinalis. Often, other sage plants are offered, which can differ significantly in terms of aroma and healing power. The same goes for sage seeds.

Dried sage herbs are just as common. It should be noted that the herbs are not more than one year old and are aroma-sealed. The prices are very different and can vary depending on the cultivation method (organic or conventional). In some online shops or marketplaces, larger quantities can usually be ordered.

Other products that are commercially available include sage capsules, sage sweets, and ready-to-use teas. For sage sweets it is advisable to check the list of ingredients. Insofar as sage extract is included, these candies can be bought without hesitation.

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