I was standing outside Condicote church after the annual Harvest Festival service when I caught up with someone I hadn’t seen since my cousin’s wedding last year. Her sister was one of my first piano pupils and then my bridesmaid five years later. I told her I was going to raid my aunt’s sage plants before we returned home.
“What are you going to do with it?” she asked. “We have tons of sage and I’d love to be able to make use of it more.”
So this post is for Caroline and anyone else who finds themselves with a glut of herb they don’t know what to do with.
Why do we use sage? Some will only know it as a condiment, mixed with onions as a stuffing for a fatty meat such as pork or goose or as a flavouring to replace salt in a salt-free diet.
While these uses show sage to be an aid to digestion, its myriad of uses stem from very ancient times. Sage is known as a Mediterranean herb which doesn’t like to get its feet wet (as I learned to my cost by over-watering cuttings!).
It’s location has led people to think it must have been brought to the UK by the Romans, but as historical plant expert, Anthony Lyman Dixon, is wont to remark, Romans are blamed for many things, but we really can’t be sure whether they brought all their herbal flavourings with them or whether sage was one of those herbs which was growing here well before they invaded our lands.
Sage, salvia officinalis, is described by Maud Grieve as “about a foot or more high, with wiry stems. The leaves are set in pairs on the stem and are 1 1/2 to 2 inches long, stalked, oblong, rounded at the ends, finely wrinkled by a strongly-marked network of veins on both sides, greyish-green in colour, softly hairy and beneath glandular. The flowers are in whorls, purplish and the corollas lipped. They blossom in August. All parts of the plant have a strong, scented odour and a warm, bitter, somewhat astringent taste, due to the volatile oil contained in the tissues.”
There are many different types of sage, but all those which begin with salvia can be used interchangeably. I prefer purple sage, salvia officinalis purpurascens, because this is the one most used medicinally in the UK and I prefer the flavour to the greener garden sage.
Sage has been a healing plant since ancient times and remained popular through the Middle Ages. Mrs Grieve quotes the latin phrase Cur moriatur homo cui Salvia crescit in horto? ('Why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden?') and gives a corresponding English proverb, 'He that would live for aye, Must eat Sage in May.'
As with most herbs, I began my journey learning about one particular use. Sage has an affinity with the chest and throat, so is good for sore throats (gargling with a tea) and lingering coughs brought on by the common cold. Then Henriette Kress mentioned sage and thyme together could be taken at the beginning of the year for three months to support the respiratory system in reducing sensitivity to pollens and other particles which induce hayfever in sufferers.
This remedy then led to a wonderful tea which could be taken for colds, coughs and general symptoms. One of my friends was working in a doctor’s office in Washington State at the time and used to give the recipe to disgruntled patients who had been refused antibiotics for their virus.
Sage and Thyme Tea
1tsp dried sage (or 1 tblsp fresh)
1 tsp dried thyme (or 1tblsp fresh)
Juice of ½ lemon
1 inch chopped or grated root ginger with the peel left on
Honey to taste
Infuse the dried herbs and ginger for approximately 10 minutes in a pint of water in a cafatiere or teapot or mug with a lid. If making the drink without the ginger you can get away with infusing for 3 minutes if you don’t want to have a really strong sage taste. Strain and pour into a mug containing the juice of half a lemon and enough honey to taste.
If you are thinking of making this tea for a child, don’t use either the thyme or honey if the child is under two years of age. They may not like the ginger either.
This drink is really warming and comforting and can be drunk 2-3 times a day.
Sage has been used for increasing blood flow to the brain and therefore to help reduce memory loss. James Wong, in his recent BBC2 series, Grow your own drugs, carried out an interesting experiment with two people in middle age who were having problems remembering things. He asked them to drink cups of sage tea for a week and afterwards both people reported being able to remember things far better.
Obviously two people isn’t a large sample and a week isn’t a long time to take a herb, since herbal actions often take a while to make themselves apparent. Still, it was an interesting experiment and something everyone can try at home. I know I should, since my family constantly sigh at me when I start a sentence and then can’t remember either the rest of it or the key word I wanted at the time I wanted to say it!
Matthew Wood says that sage acts on veins which are depressed and relaxed. Sage also acts on clotted blood. He says he learned of this use from the herbalist Eva Graf. She used it to cleanse blood vessels, remove plaque or hardening, for varicose veins and for diabetic ulcerations of the veins, especially the calves.
This use is something I haven’t tried yet, but I’m tempted to make an oil and see what happens if I add it to horse chestnut oil as a varicose vein salve.
Sage is a potent anti-viral. Like many febrifuges, it encourages sweating when taken as a hot tea, but is cooling when drunk cold. You can make a sage tincture using the simpler method by adding vodka or brandy to a glass jar filled with fresh sage.
Medical herbalist, Jenny Jones, recently demonstrated how to make this tincture at the Herb Society’s Volunteers Day. She recommended not filling the jar completely to the top with vodka as the alcohol would draw water out of the sage leaves. Jenny suggested taking a 30-drop dose three times of day at the first sign of any cold or flu. If you were using a higher percentage alcohol, the drop dose would be much lower.
Sage also acts to dry up secretions, which is why it is so effective for chest and throat issues and can help to alleviate hot flushes of menopause. It can also help to dry up unwanted milk production and has even been known to delay the onset of menstruation by a couple of days if extremely large amounts are taken.
Sage should be safe to take in culinary amounts if you are pregnant or nursing, but it may well be prudent not to use sage medicinally during these times.
I have to be honest and admit sage is not one of my most favourite flavours in tea on its own, but I love the combination of sage and thyme. This year I experimented with a sage and thyme elixir which tastes wonderful.
Sage and Thyme Elixir
Pick enough fresh sage leaves and flowering thyme sprigs to half fill a glass jar. You could use dried sage or thyme, but reduce the volume by three-quarters. Cover with runny honey, stirring well with a chopstick to remove any air bubbles and make sure the herbs are completely covered. Fill to the top with brandy and mix well. Seal with a screw top lid. Label and date. Store in a cool dark place for 4-6 weeks. Strain, bottle and use. Dose is one dropperful every half hour at the first sign of a virus.
Sage also makes an amazing vinegar. I suspect the soil sage is grown in affects the colour which is transferred to the vinegar. My clay-grown garden purple sage only turns vinegar a pale pink, although the taste is good. My aunt’s sage plants, grown on alkaline Cotswold limestone, turn the vinegar a deep crimson within half an hour of being infused. This is why I have been raiding her plants annually for the past three years!
Fill a glass jar with sage leaves. Pour over cider vinegar until the jar is full. Remove air bubbles with a chopstick, then refill with more cider vinegar. Seal the jar with a screwtop lid and label and date. Store in a warm, dark place for three weeks, shaking occasionally. Strain and bottle, label and date. Use with honey for a delightful hot drink or in salad dressings.
Fill a glass jar with sage leaves. Very slowly, pour runny honey over the leaves, pausing regularly to remove air bubbles by stirring with a chopstick. When the jar is full, seal with a screwtop lid and leave to infuse for several weeks. Strain before use if you don’t fancy eating the sage leaves.
My sage honey and vinegar have now been infusing since the end of August. I’m looking forward to decanting them this weekend and trying out my first sage oxymel. That’s the wonderful thing about herbs. It doesn’t matter how many herbal products you have made with a particular plant, there are always more to experiment with and try.