Jacqueline Soule here this week, offering apologies to my English teachers, but I hope I caught your attention with the title. I used it to call attention to the fact that many plants are called “sage,” but only some of them should be used for culinary purposes.
The culinary sage you purchase in the store is Salvia officinalis. This doesn’t mean it is the “official” sage, it means it is the medicinal sage. The word officinalis is Latin for “of or belonging to an officina.” The officina was the storeroom of a monastery where medicines were kept.
Plant Nerd Note: Like iris (Iris), the scientific name and the common name for salvia (Salvia) are the same.
Salvia is a massive genus, with over 1500 named species and varieties of shrubs, herbaceous perennials, and annuals. Many of these salvia are used, often for cooking or medicinal purposes, in ritual (Salvia apiana, the white sage), and to simply bring us pleasure as cultivated garden ornamentals.
Salvia officinalis once had many medicinal uses, including to help ward off bubonic plague (not a common ailment today). Studies done in recent years show that sage does have some medicinal value – including as a local anesthetic for the skin, as a hemostatic agent, and as a diuretic.* Sometimes savoring the Southwest includes savoring that “ahhh” of soaking your feet after a long hike.
In my garden I grow a slew of salvia. Salvia officinalis or true sage is for the kitchen. Shrubby Salvia greggii (Gregg’s salvia, autumn sage) comes in vast array of colors (I have 7 different colors so far) and I keep it for the hummingbirds and for the edible flowers.
Salvia coccinia, the scarlet sage, is non-shrubby and blooms in winter when the autumn sage doesn’t. The scarlet flowers are edible by humans and the hummingbirds hover within millimeters of the ground to sip the nectar.
I have killed several plants of Salvia leucantha, the Mexican bush sage because I do not cover my plants when it freezes and this semi-tropical Mexican native is not frost hardy.
To finish on a positive note, both species of chia, Salvia hispanica, and Salvia columbariae grow well in my Sonoran Desert yard. Salvia hispanica likes containers with nice rich potting soil and some afternoon shade in summer. Salvia columbariae grows in the desert soil and comes back as a winter wildflower every year, especially if I sprinkle the soil with water once a week. More on chia in a future article.
If you live in Southeastern Arizona, please come to one of my lectures. Look for me at your local Pima County Library branch, Steam Pump Ranch, Tubac Presidio, Tucson Festival of Books and other venues. After each event I will be signing copies of my books, including Fruit & Vegetable Gardening in the Southwest (Cool Springs Press, $23).
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* The information in this post is true to the best of our knowledge. It is offered without guarantees on the part of the author or any shareholders in this website, who disclaim any liability in connection with the use of this information. Be aware that if herbs are misused, they can be harmful.