Sage (Salvia officinalis) has a long and interesting history. Cultivated by ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, it has been used in cooking and as medicine in just about every culture of the world. Sage was honored by the International Herb Association as the herb of the year in 2001.
A member of the mint family, sage is characterized by square stems and opposite leaves. There are about 750 varieties of sage, including regular garden sage and flavored and scented types like pineapple sage.
Regular garden sage has gray-green leaves that are covered with a silvery down. There are some varieties with leaves that are lighter green or even variegated green and yellow. The plant resembles mint, with a square, silvery stem and lance-shaped leaves. It grows to about 1 or 2 feet high and bushes out slightly. It will produce blue to purple flowers on top of the leaf stem, which should be removed before or right after blooming to encourage more growth.
Most sage varieties are native to the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Sage migrated to Central Europe during the Middle Ages, and it appears in an inventory of herbs grown in Charlemagne's gardens in France around the year of 812. Immigrants from Europe brought it to America. A few varieties of sage come from Central America and Mexico as well.
Sage is an integral part of making bread stuffing for turkey and pork. It is also commonly used in making sausage. Sage is also a natural food preservative, destroying harmful bacteria that make food spoil. It was added to many meats to keep them fresh when there was limited or no refrigeration.
The ancient Greeks used sage to treat snake bites. Romans were so entranced with the herb that they cut it with great flourish in a ceremony where the people cutting it had to wear certain clothing. Their feet were ceremoniously washed and they cut the herb with a special knife that was not made of iron, because when iron came in contact with sage it changed the chemical composition.
Sage has been used through the ages for medicinal purposes. It helps controls fever because it encourages perspiration, which cools the body. Sage tea works well to soothe indigestion, and sage is also known to stabilize blood sugar in diabetics.
The ancient Greeks believed that eating sage brought great wisdom. They also thought that sage could give long life and even immortality, just by being grown in the garden. The Romans believed that sage enhanced domestic virtue. They hung it on bedposts and over beds of a married couple. Sage is a sacred herb to Native Americans, who believe that smoke from burning it takes prayers to the Great Spirit.