Salvia sclarea (Clary Sage)

Salvia sclarea, commonly called Clary or Clary Sage, is an aromatic evergreen herbaceous perennial or biennial with wide green, oval to heart-shaped leaves. Rising above the foliage is a tall many-branched panicle with whorls of tiny pale blue flowers and large papery purplish-pink bracts.

It is a drought-tolerant and hardy plant native from the Mediterranean basin to central Asia. It has become naturalised in many locations around the world. In some places, it is considered an invasive weed.

Salvia sclarea plant (Clary Sage, Europe Sage)

Quick Overview

TYPE

Type herbaceous

HEIGHT & WIDTH

Salvia sclarea height and width

BLOOM TIME

Salvia sclarea bloom time

SUNLIGHT

full sun

HARDINESS

hardiness (-15ºC / 5º F)

DROUGHT TOLERANCE

drought tolerance aprox 4 months

ORIGIN

Origin Mediterranen basin North Africa and West Asia

Taxonomy

  • Botanical name: Salvia sclarea  (SAL-vee-ah SKLAR-ee-uh) 
  • Family:  Lamiaceae (lay-mee-AY-see-ee)
  • Common name: Clary, Clary Sage, Europe Sage
NameMeaning
SalviaDerives from the Latin word Salva meaning to save or heal. Referring to the healing properties of salvias.
sclareaComes from the Latin word clarus meaning clear. Referring to its medicinal use to clear the eyes from foreign objects.

How to identify Salvia sclarea

Salvia sclarea plant (Clary Sage, Europe Sage)

Plant

An upright, multi-branched herbaceous plant that grows in bushy clumps.

It has large green leaves, topped with a tall panicle of small flowers and large papery bracts.

The plant is strongly aromatic, releasing a pleasant fragrance.

The leaves persist during the winter unless the climate is very cold.

It has an average height of 1 to 1.25m (3.2 to 4.1 ft). The width is around  60 to 80 cm (2 to 2.6 ft).

Salvia sclarea stem (Clary Sage, Europe Sage)

Stem

The stem is upright and very branched (panicle), bearing whorls of tiny pink flowers and conspicuous light-coloured bracts. 

The square stems are thick, green or brownish, and densely covered with hairs. They have opposite leaves at the nodes, each pair at right angles to the next. The leaves are bigger at the base of the stem and become progressively smaller at the top.

Salvia sclarea leaf (Clary Sage, Europe Sage)

Leaf

The leaf is large and covered with short hair. It is green and rugose on the upper surface and has pronounced whitish veins on the lower surface. 

The leaf is oval on the upper part of the stem and progressively larger and transitioning to heart-shaped at the base.

It is entire, wrinkled, with an irregularly toothed margin and a short stalk (becoming almost sessile on the upper part of the stem).

The size varies from approximately 30 cm/1 ft at the base to 15 cm/0.5 ft higher up the stem.

Salvia sclarea flower (Clary Sage, Europe Sage)

Flower

The inflorescence is a panicle 20 to 70 cm / 7.8 to 21.6 in tall with several whorls composed of 4 to 6 tiny flowers whose colour can vary between pale tones of cream, pink, violet, blue and white.

At the base of the whorls are two opposite large colourful bracts, which can be violet, pink or mauve, that remain on the stem 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 much larger and forming a cupped shape (which acts as a landing platform allowing bees and other insects to enter the flower). The stamens are inserted under the hood of the corolla with the anthers outside, and the long pistil sticks out from the top.

Each flower is held inside a green 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 can bloom during spring and summer.

Quick tips to identify Clary sage

How to identify Salvia sclarea (Clary Sage) - Drought tolerant Salvias

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    Salvia sclarea Usage

    Ornamental

    The Clary Sage provides height and colour for many weeks. It has wide green leaves and, emerging from the rosette, a tall many-branched flower panicle with whorls of pale pink flowers and purplish-pink bracts along the stems. A bold plant with year-round interest.

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

    This plant is short-lived, but if you leave the flowers, it will self-seed and produce new plants that will continue in the garden for many years.

    In some areas, it may be considered an invasive weed, so you may want to check this where you live before planting it in your garden.

    Medicinal

    Clary sage has been used as a medicinal herb since ancient times. It was used to treat anxiety, insomnia, muscle pains, digestive disorders, menstrual issues and kidney diseases.

    It was widely used as an eyewash to remove foreign particles from the eye. The particles would adhere to the gelatinous coat of the seed and thus be removed from the eye. This treatment was the origin of its name, sclarea, which means clear, due to its capability to clear the eye.

    Studies have demonstrated the analgesic, anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties of Salvia sclarea.

    Some studies suggest that this plant may be used as a potential treatment for gastrointestinal and respiratory diseases associated with spasms.

    Culinary

    The leaves can be used in the same way as common sage (Salvia officinalis). They are delicious in cooked meals such as omelettes, fritters and stews. The raw flowers are used in salads. Both leaves and flowers are used to make tea.

    It is also used as an ingredient to flavour wine and beer.

    Cosmetics

    Due to its intense aroma and antiseptic properties, the essential oil of Clary sage is used in the production of perfumes and soaps.

    Biodiversity

    The flowers of this sage are rich in nectar, being very attractive to bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects. They enhance the biodiversity of your garden.

    Salvia sclarea Habitat

    Clary Sage can be found in sunny grasslands, rocky slopes, and woodland margins at altitudes from 100 to 1100m //320 to 3600 ft

    How to care for Salvia sclarea

    Cold exposure

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

    Add some mulch to protect the crown from excess moisture. Mulch should be gravel to protect the leaves from rotting due to the humidity in other types of mulch.

    Sun exposure

    Needs full sun (at least 6 hours per day) to maintain prettier foliage and to flower more abundantly.

    Soil

    It likes 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, it has more difficulty tolerating drought and cold temperatures and also tends to become leggy and have fewer flowers.

    It grows well in most types of soils: mildly acidic, neutral and mildly alkaline.

    Watering

    Silver 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.

    To preserve the soil´s moisture, you should add mulch around the root area of the plant. Gravel is the best option for mulching. 

    How to prune Salvia sclarea

    Cut off the diseased or yellow leaves to maintain the vigorous growth and healthy appearance of the foliage.

    Clary sage is a short-lived perennial, but you can extend its life by cutting the flower stalks. Once the flowers start to look shabby and dry at the edges, cut the flowering stems back as close to the base as possible before the flowers produce seeds.

    On the other hand, if you want the plant to self-seed and grow new plants each year, don´t prune back the flower stalks.

    How to propagate Salvia sclarea

    Clary sage can be easily propagated from seed, and it will actually self-seed if you don’t cut back the flower stems.

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

    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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