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Sage: The Herb of Thanksgiving

Come November we start to think about Thanksgiving and family crowded around a table groaning with holiday treats (which explains why Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday!). Turkey is the traditional centerpiece of Thanksgiving celebrations and most cooks accompany it with stuffing (baked in the turkey) or dressing (baked separately). Your family recipe may call for stuffing/dressing made with either white bread or corn bread, and may include sausage, oysters, or chestnuts, but whatever the ingredients, it will be improved with the addition of sage.

Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis) is a woody perennial sub-shrub, growing to a height and spread of 2-3 feet, depending on the variety. The pebbly leaves have a strong, pine-camphor fragrance and a savory, slightly peppery flavor. Common sage has gray-green leaves, but there are varieties that have golden yellow, purple, variegated and tri-color (green, pink and white) foliage that look beautiful in the garden. In late spring to mid-summer, spikes of tubular, pinkish-purple flowers (a few varieties bloom white) rise up from the center of the uppermost leaves and attract pollinators such as butterflies, hummingbirds and bees.

Sage originated in southeastern Europe and thrives in Mediterranean climates and thin, poor soil. It flourishes when planted in gravelly, well-draining soil and a location that receives full sun throughout most of the day with a little shade in the afternoon. It grows best when it is kept a little thirsty (water sparingly). Rather than using a hardwood mulch, opt for a mulch of pea gravel to draw light into the center of the plant and avoid rotting of the stems.

Sage has a tendency to get gnarled and woody, and after 3-5 years may stop producing new branches. To promote new, supple growth and keep it looking tidy, prune plants back in early spring and cut out any dead branches.

During the growing season, snip leaves from the tips of the plant and add the chopped leaves to season pork, beef, duck, and goose recipes. In Italy it is commonly mixed with melted butter and stirred into pasta or gnocchi. As a digestive, it can help with the digestion of rich, fatty meats and foods. Sage has a strong flavor, so a little goes a long way.

After blooming, harvest by cutting off no more than 1/3 of the foliage, shaping the plant as you snip. Remove leaves from the stems, place them in a large basket and place the basket in a cool, dry place away from heat and sunlight. Once a day, fluff up the leaves to help them dry thoroughly. When the leaves are completely dried, place them in a glass jar and keep them in a cool, dark place for use throughout the winter.

Our earliest settlers brought sage to America, but it has been cultivated for thousands of years for use as a seasoning and for its healing properties. The Romans considered it a sacred plant and burnt it during ceremonies. Folklore says that anyone who has sage planted in the garden will be successful in business, and referring to someone as a sage is saying that they are a wise person.

The genus name Salvia derives from the Latin word salvere, meaning “to save” perhaps referring to the healing properties of the plant. Salvia was used medicinally in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome and many herbals cite its many miraculous properties. It was one of the ingredients in Four Thieves vinegar, a blend of herbs that theoretically warded off the plague.

It is listed as an antibiotic, antifungal, antispasmodic, astringent, antiseptic, digestive, diuretic, estrogenic, homeostatic, hypoglycemic, stimulant and tonic. Traditionally it has been used to treat stress, depression and fatigue, heal minor skin wounds, increase fertility, stop bleeding and treat sore throats. Both the herbalist John Gerard and the physician/herbalist Nicholas Culpepper claimed that sage (in the form of a tea made from the leaves) improved memory. While sage has a GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) designation by the German Commission E it is toxic in large quantities. Pregnant women and nursing mothers should avoid drinking sage tea unless under the supervision of an herbalist or physician.

Whether you grow sage for cooking, luck or medicinal reasons, this is the perfect time to plant it. Sage grows best when the soil temperature is 60-70 degrees and the roots will continue to grow over the winter, making for a very hardy plant come spring. 4” pots are readily available at most nurseries and the plants are attractive enough to be planted in the perennial border.

Sage is easy to grow and it’s so rewarding to step out into your garden and pick a few leaves when you need a bit of seasoning. Next year I hope you will be harvesting sage from your garden for your Thanksgiving celebration. A belated Happy Thanksgiving!

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