While calling culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) “that turkey herb” does it a disservice, it probably wouldn’t mind. Well connected in the plant kingdom (there are 900 species and countless ornamental and edible varieties—from large, spectacular shrubs to tiny, single-stemmed plants), Salvia is notoriously easygoing. Sage is disease and bug resistant, and demands little care, yet its colourful blooms and striking foliage are beautiful in the garden; some varieties even provide nectar for butterflies and hummingbirds.
Traditionally associated with longevity, sage comes from the Latin word salvere, which means “to save or cure”; in ancient times, it was used for both medicinal and mystical purposes. Even today sage is often used in herbal medicine and cleansing rituals. Most of us, however, are happy to just enjoy this plant’s pungent, balsamic taste in the kitchen.
While ornamental sage is a worthwhile addition to any garden, culinary varieties are particularly versatile because while they’re attractive enough to be incorporated into perennial beds and borders, they can also be harvested for cooking and eating.
All Salvia belong to the Lamiaceae, or mint, family; they are vigorous and fast growing but, unlike mint, aren’t invasive. They’re also suitable for gardens across the country. “Not every culinary variety is winter hardy,” says Conrad Richter, president of Richters Herbs in Goodwood, Ontario, “but the ones that aren’t still grow well as annuals.” Richter notes, however, that in 40 years of growing herbs, purple sage overwintered in his Zone 5 garden for the first time last year.
Sage generally prefers full sun (some types will tolerate part shade), low humidity, slightly drier conditions and fairly lean, especially well-drained soil. While there are exceptions (always check specific cultivar’s needs), most culinary sages shouldn’t be planted beside herbs that require regular or frequent watering, such as mint, parsley, cilantro and chives.
Some culinary sages are easily grown from seed, while others must be propagated by cuttings or layering. Seed-grown varieties usually germinate in 14 to 21 days given adequate warmth (20 to 25°C), even moisture and moderate light. But once the seedlings have germinated, you need to move them into full sun to develop. Seedlings should be at least seven centimetres tall before planting outside, once the ground has warmed and all danger of frost has past.