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Gardening : Sage Stages a Return to Kitchen and Garden

June 04, 1989|JOAN DRAKE | Times Staff Writer

That old saying "what goes around, comes around" is certainly true of the herb sage. Prior to World War II it was the most popular culinary herb in America. Yet after the war, sage dropped into almost total obscurity, typically getting relegated solely to the task of flavoring the Thanksgiving turkey stuffing. Now sage is staging a culinary comeback, starring in dishes at trendy restaurants and the most up-to-date recipes.

It makes sense to raise sage because the fresh leaves have a much more subtle flavor than those that have been dried. Different varieties can also add color and texture to your garden.

Of the more than 700 species of sage, the following seven culinary and two ornamental varieties are those most commonly found in seed catalogues or at local nurseries. If given the space, some of these may grow as tall as 5 feet, but others can be contained in pots, trained as edgings, borders and background, or as a small hedge.

Raise sage from seeds, stem cuttings or root divisions, or small plants available at nurseries. Plant in a sunny spot with average, fast-draining soil. Once established, sage becomes fairly drought resistant. In fact, over-watering can cause mildew or root rot.

In the spring, you may have some problems with pill bugs or small worms feasting on the leaves, but cleaning away any debris from the bottom of the plant should discourage these pests. More sun and less water may also help.

By trimming away woody branches you'll encourage new growth, increase bushiness and prevent the plants from getting to scraggly. Fertilize plants grown in containers or after heavy harvesting. Renew every four or five years when they become too woody.

Culinary sages:

CLARY SAGE (S. sclarea)-- The name is condensed from "clear eye," because in ancient times this variety was used medicinally to clear eye infections. It's the tallest species, growing up to 5 feet in height. A biennial, clary sage produces a basal rosette of leaves the first year and spikes of bluish-white flowers with rose bracts the second. The leaves are large (six to seven inches) at the base, but become smaller at the upper ends of the long stalks. Leaves are bumpy, have a scalloped edge and are gray-green in color. Batter and fry the leaves for fritters.

DWARF SAGE (S.o. Minim)-- A compact perennial variety similar to garden sage. It bears lavender flowers, grows up to 1 1/2 feet tall, makes a good edging or may be raised in a pot.

GARDEN SAGE (Salvia officinalis)-- The most common variety and the most important for culinary purposes. Also called common sage, this perennial grows up to 30 inches high and has a tendency to sprawl. The woolly, elongated oval leaves are gray-green in color, one to two inches long with pebbly surfaces and pronounced veining on the underside. The violet-blue flowers bloom on tall spikes.

GOLDEN SAGE (S. o. Icterina)-- Grows up to 2 feet high and has gold and green edged or mottled leaves that are milder in flavor than garden sage. This is another variety that grows well in a pot.

PINEAPPLE SAGE (S. elegans)-- A perennial that grows 3 feet or taller with light green, slightly rough, pointed leaves having a sweet pineapple fragrance. The tubular scarlet blossoms are a favorite of bees and hummingbirds. Use the leaves to flavor jams and jellies.

PURPLE SAGE (S.o. Purpurea)-- The deep reddish purple foliage makes this variety a colorful addition to the garden. A more compact growth pattern enables it to form a good border. The leaves have a strong flavor and are most often used for making tea.

VARIEGATED SAGE (S.o. tricolor)-- The variegated green, white and purplish red leaves make this variety easy to identify. It grows up to 2 feet high and does well in a pot. Lavender flowers grow on tall spikes.

Ornamental sages:

JERUSALEM SAGE (Phlomis fruticosa)-- Shrubby perennial that grows up to 4 feet high with coarse, downy, gray green, wrinkled leaves. Grown for its attractive yellow flowers.

MEXICAN BUSH SAGE (S. leucantha)-- grows 3 to 4 feet tall and just as wide. The long, slender purple flowers attract hummingbirds.

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