Salvia officinalis (Common Sage)

Salvia officinalis, commonly called Sage, Garden sage or Broadleaf sage, is an upright, bushy, evergreen subshrub with a cushion form. It has broad grey-green woolly leaves and dense upright racemes of violet-blue flowers rising above the foliage.

It is a drought-tolerant shrub native to the Mediterranean basin, specifically to the Balkan peninsula.

It has been introduced and naturalized in many parts of the world and has been known for its medicinal and culinary properties since ancient times.


Quick Overview

TYPE

HEIGHT & WIDTH

Salvia officinalis height and width

BLOOM TIME

Salvia officinalis bloom time

SUNLIGHT

full sun

HARDINESS

hardiness (-15ºC / 5º F)

DROUGHT TOLERANCE

drought tolerance aprox 4 months

ORIGIN

origin mediterranean basin

Taxonomy

  • Botanical name: Salvia officinalis  (SAL-vee-ah oh-fiss-ih-NAH-liss) 
  • Family: Lamiaceae (lay-mee-AY-see-ee)
  • Common name: Sage, Common sage, Garden sage, Dalmatian sage, Broadleaf sage
NameMeaning
SalviaDerives from the Latin word Salva meaning to save or heal. Referring to the healing properties of salvias.
officinalis Latin word meaning belonging to an officina, the medicine storeroom of a monastery. It has a long history of medicinal use.

How to identify Salvia officinalis

Salvia officinalis shrub (Common sage, Garden sage, Dalmatian sage, Broadleaf sage)

Shrub

Bushy, aromatic, evergreen subshrub, forming a spreading cushion shape densely covered with its broad grey-green leaves that become almost white in the summer.

It is very branched from the base with white hairy stems bearing numerous hairy, grey-green leaves of various sizes.

Long stalks with terminal or axillary racemes of violet-blue flowers rise above the foliage.

The shrub has an average height of 30 to 60 cm  (1 to 2 ft)  and a width of 60 to 90 cm  (2 to 3 ft).

This species varies widely in terms of its inflorescence, leaf size and shape, calyx size and hairiness. 

Botanists define it as a shrub because of its woody stems; however, it looks very much like an evergreen herbaceous perennial.

Salvia officinalis stem (Common sage, Garden sage, Dalmatian sage, Broadleaf sage)

Stem

The stems are upright, very branched from the base and covered with short, dense white hairs. They are initially herbaceous but become woody over time.

They are squared, with opposite leaves at each node, each pair at right angles to the next. The leaves are bigger at the base of the stem and become smaller at the top of the stem.

The flower stems are longer than the foliage stems and have terminal or axillary racemes of flowers (simple or with 2 opposite branches at the base of the terminal inflorescence).

Salvia officinalis leaf (Common sage, Garden sage, Dalmatian sage, Broadleaf sage)

Leaf

The leaf is densely-haired, grey-green and rugose on top, and whitish underneath because of its dense short hairs. It has a clear netted venation that can be easily seen on the underside.

The shape of the leaf is ovate-oblong to elliptic. It is entire, with a crenulate margin (a margin with small rounded teeth) and petiolate (has a stalk).

The size varies between 1.8 to 7.7 cm ( 0.7 and 3.1 in) long and 0.8 to 3 cm  (0.3 and 1.2 in) wide.

The aroma of the leaves is pungent and can be noticed even without crushing them. 

There are numerous cultivars with showy variegated leaves, beautiful inflorescences and with different aromas. 

Salvia officinalis flower (Common sage, Garden sage, Dalmatian sage, Broadleaf sage)

Flower

The inflorescence is a raceme which varies in height from 10 to 40 cm (3.9 to 15.7 in), with several whorls composed of 4 to 12 violet-blue flowers. The base of the inflorescence has two opposite green, ovate, acute bracts that remain after the flower falls off.

The corolla is two-lipped, the upper lip has 2 lobes laterally compressed, forming a hood, and the lower lip has 3 lobes, with the middle lobe larger. The stamens are inserted under the hood of the corolla with the anthers peeking outside, and the pistil sticks out from the top.

Each flower is held inside a green or maroon-coloured calyx that is bell-shaped and 2-lipped with five triangular teeth, three on the upper lip and 2 on the lower one.

The flowers bloom in early summer.

Quick tips to identify Common sage

How to identify Salvia officinalis (Common sage) - Drought tolerant sage

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    Salvia officinalis Usage

    Ornamental

    The Common Sage is a very attractive shrub with its dense grey-green, broad and woolly foliage and long violet-blue inflorescences rising above the foliage.

    It can be used as a solitary plant or planted in a group. Can be planted in pots, beds or borders. In rock or gravel gardens.

    Due to its aroma, it is a plant of choice for aromatic gardens.

    It is ideal for planting on the borders of paths to perfume the air as they are brushed when passing by.

    This sage usually becomes too woody after 4 to 5 years and needs to be replaced.

    Medicinal

    Salvia officinalis has been used in traditional medicine since ancient times. It was used for numerous health issues such as seizures, ulcers,  gout, rheumatism, inflammation, dizziness, tremor, paralysis, diarrhoea, and hyperglycemia. No wonder it was stored in the offcina (the medicine storeroom of monasteries), leading to its name officinalis.

    Studies have demonstrated some medicinal properties such as anticancer, anti-inflammatory, antinociceptive, antioxidant, antimicrobial, antimutagenic, antidementia, hypoglycemic, and hypolipidemic.

    Culinary

    Due to its savoury, slightly peppery flavour, Common sage leaves have been used, fresh or dried, in the preparation of many foods since ancient times and Sage tea was prepared to treat several illnesses.

    It is commonly used in roasted or stewed dishes of beef, poultry, pork and lamb.

    It is also used to flavour cheese, vinegar, olive oil, and alcoholic drinks.

    Cosmetics

    Due to its intense aroma and antiseptic properties, the essential oil of Salvia officinalis is used in the production of perfumes and cosmetics such as soaps, shampoo and toothpaste.

    Biodiversity

    The flowers of this sage are a good source of nectar, being very attractive to bees, butterflies, other beneficial insects, and sometimes even hummingbirds. They enhance the biodiversity of your garden.

    Insect repellent

    Sage can act as an insect repellent due to its strong odour. It is said to repel mosquitos, cabbage moths and carrot flies. So it is a good plant to have, especially near your vegetable garden.

    Cultural

    In ancient times the Romans considered this sage a “holy herb” and used it in their religious rituals.

    Salvia officinalis Habitat

    This shrub grows in the typical Mediterranean landscape at altitudes up to 2900 m (9500 ft).

    It is seen in dry shrublands, rocky slopes, and grasslands in free-draining soil.

    It grows in coastal areas and across hillsides and mountains.

    How to care for Salvia officinalis

    Cold exposure

    This shrub is hardy, tolerating temperatures down to -15ºC (5ºF) or colder, as long as the soil is well drained. It does not support cold and humid soil. It is moderately frost hardy if the temperatures are not too low.

    However, until it is fully established, it will need winter protection.  Add some mulch to protect the roots from low temperatures and the foliage from the wet soil.

    Sun exposure

    Needs full sun (at least 6 hours per day) to maintain its best colour and compact shape.

    It can tolerate some shade, but it is likely to become more floppy as the stems stretch to the light. It also won´t get as many flowers nor produce as much essential oil.

    Soil

    It likes hot, well-drained to dry, stony or sandy soils. It especially dislikes wet soil, which makes it more exposed to fungal diseases.

    If prefers poor soils, if they’re too fertile, the shrub tends to become leggy and has more difficulty tolerating drought and cold temperatures.

    It thrives best in mildly acid and neutral soils. But it can also grow in mildly alkaline soil.

    Watering

    Once established, this Sage is drought tolerant and can go for some time without water (about 4 months if the temperature is not too hot). 

    Overwatering will probably kill it. In particular, the combination of heat and humidity can lead to fungal disease.

    During the first two years after planting, you will need to water the young plant every two to three weeks during the summer.  Allow the soil to dry out between watering. In case of a heat wave, water more frequently. Monitor your plants closely and look out for any signs of stress.

    To preserve the soil´s moisture, you should add mulch around the root area of the plant (but not too close to the base). Wood chips and gravel are good options for mulching. 

    Other conditions

    Salvia officinalis will become leggy and lose its nice compact shape over the years. So, you should propagate it and replant a new sage every 4 or 5 years.

    The best season to plant is during Autumn, so it will have all winter to develop its roots. In very cold areas it is best to plant during the spring as long as there is available water throughout the summer to survive while developing its roots.

    How to prune Salvia officinalis

    Pruning is essential to maintain the plant´s compact decorative shape and flowering. It should be done twice a year.

    • A hard prune in early spring in order to maintain its shape and compactness. Take care to always prune above the new shoots that are appearing at the base.
    • A light prune after flowering (usually in summer) to encourage bushiness and possibly another flush of flowering after a few weeks. This prune should be done just below the inflorescence to the next pair of new buds.

    If you want to use your sage as a herb for the kitchen, then the best time to harvest is just before flowering because this is when its oil content is highest. Cut off the top 20cm (8 on) of tender growth.

    How to propagate Salvia officinalis

    Sage can be propagated in different ways:

    • Propagate by seed sown in late winter and early spring.
    • Propagate by softwood cuttings taken in early spring, by semi-hardwood cuttings taken in later spring and summer, or by hardwood cuttings taken in autumn
    • Propagate by layering in spring or autumn

    A good online source for plant propagation techniques can be found at RHS.

    If you prefer books, I can recommend the following:

    • Creative propagation: a grower’s guide by Thompson, Peter,
    • RHS Propagating Plants: How to Create New Plants For Free by Alan Toogood, Royal Horticultural Society

    Other Salvias you may also like

    Sources

    Sources of information used for this article

    Internet

    Article from KEW

    Article from North Carolina Extension

    Article from Missouri Botanical Garden

    Vol XII from FloraIberica

    Books

    Creative propagation: a grower’s guide by Thompson, Peter

    The New Book of Salvias by Clebsch, Betsy/ Barner, Carol D. (ILT)

    Field Guide to the Wildflowers of the Western Mediterranean, Second edition Paperback – 1 Oct. 2021 by Chris Thorogood

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