Garden Talk: The Sage Advice

, posted in Gardening

By Zahra Nasir

Indigenous in all countries surrounding the Mediterranean, sage has been cultivated throughout Europe for hundreds of years. Zahra Nasir teaches gardening-buffs how to grow the herb in Pakistani soil

Well, ladies, make no bones about it, if you want to stand up and make a statement about who really rules the roost; simply plant sage in your garden. If your sage flourishes then this is an indelible sign to all and sundry that matriarchy prevails in your home. But on the other hand, if your sage withers and dies then quickly pull it out, hide it away, dispose it off quietly, for if someone finds out then everyone will know you have submitted to male domination albeit Taliban style or otherwise. Sage you see, is and has from ancient times, been considered a very female herb.

There are actually around 900 different kinds of sage, botanically known as ‘Salvias’. Sage is a member of the ‘Lamiaceae’ family of plants but the one we are talking about here is that good old medicinal and culinary herb ‘Salvia officinalis’ or ‘Common’ sage although there really isn’t anything at all common about its myriad properties.

Members of this huge genus are, except for a 100 or so, aromatic and can be annuals, biennials or perennials and can be evergreen or deciduous with, mostly, strong woody stems. The sage in question, with attractive velvety, silvery green, dare I say ‘sage green’ leaves which it may or, being awkward, may not hang on to all year round is a hardy perennial. Although its bare woody stems are not at all ornamental, its other properties more than make up for this with its spectacular spires of blue flowers in the spring proffering a splendid apology for anything it may have done to offend you.

Indigenous in all the countries surrounding the Mediterranean, including North Africa, sage has been widely cultivated throughout Europe for literally hundreds of years. It was introduced to North America sometime in the 1600s and was so venerated by the Chinese during the same period of history (should that be ‘her-story’ in this instance?) that they happily bartered three chests of top quality tea for a single chest of dried sage with European traders.

As its origins belie, this particular sage adores sunny, well drained positions in reasonably light, sandy soil although it will tolerate, my own plants are an example, much heavier, humus rich soil as long as it never ever gets water logged as this means almost instant death. Whilst sage is, or rather was, considered to have the ability to bring people back to life if one is to believe ancient Druid and Roman lore, sadly it cannot resurrect itself and when it decides to give up the ghost… it does!

Hippocrates, the ancestor of modern doctors and their Hippocratic oath, Dioscorides and Marcus Aurelius’ doctor by the name of Galen all promoted the use of sage for a wide variety of female illnesses and problems and, much later on, Pliny the Elder venerated it as a top notch herb for treating wounds and snake bites and its botanical name ‘Salvia’ is actually derived from the Latin word ‘Salvere’ which means to be in the best of health. Closer to home in a manner of speaking, in the Arab world, sage is considered to be brain food and was once prescribed for boosting intelligence.

Growing to a height of approximately three feet if it is happy, much less if it isn’t quite comfortable, sage is an astringent, antiseptic herb with a very strong and pleasing aroma. It has been found to relax spasms, prevent sweating, improve digestion, help with liver function and has anti-inflammatory and anti-depressant uses. Modern herbalists prescribe it, taken internally, for indigestion, liver problems, flatulence, to ease lactation and for a whole range of female problems as identified by the ancient Romans. Externally it is used for nasty insect bites, sore throats and mouths plus various skin infections.

Then of course it has numerous culinary uses too. The pungent leaves can be used in all sorts of meat, fish and poultry dishes, a Christmas turkey stuffed with sage and onion being a prime example. The leaves, fresh or dried, make an excellent herb tea or can be used for adding a delicious flavour to homemade cheese and, having told you all of the above I’m certain you, ladies in particular, would like to cultivate a few plants for home use.

The first thing you need is seed of course and I have found good quality German seed in the market here which has (at least mine did) a germination rate of about 90 per cent. I paid Rs. 80 per packet last April and ended up with four dozen healthy plants which, in my opinion, was a very good deal.

The hard black seed, almost round in shape, should be sown in pots or trays of good, well draining compost. About quarter of an inch deep is ideal. Place the pots/trays in a sunny location; keep them watered but not overly wet and the seeds should begin to germinate after 10 to 14 days. Don’t plant the seeds too close together, three inches apart all round is ideal, to allow the seedlings room to grow without having to endure competition from their neighbours. Once they have developed four to six healthy leaves, carefully transplant them into individual 10-inch pots or plant them out, one to two feet apart, directly in the garden. Those of you without an actual garden can keep them in pots which, in adverse weather conditions such as heavy rain, can be kept in a sheltered place.

As previously mentioned, this particular kind of sage is a perennial plant but, sadly, that doesn’t mean it lives forever. It should be pretty and productive for three to four years after which it will tend to get rather woody, have fewer leaves and not be so attractive therefore you should start a new batch off every couple of years or so. Once you have got an established sage plant it can easily be increased by taking cuttings during late spring or early autumn.

Now, the all-important climatic requirements. Sage the sun lover needs sunshine and dry growing conditions. If you happen to reside in Karachi then sow the seed during October or November and keep your fingers crossed that the plants produce lots of leaves before humidity creeps up during early summer as they may not like this at all. Keeping them on a sunny, covered veranda where dew/humidity don’t directly fall on them, will encourage them to survive the summer but it could be that you need to treat them as an annual plant. In Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad, you can sow the seed either in September/October or during late February/March and, as humidity tends to be a little lower than in Karachi, the plants will have more chance of being perennial. In Quetta, Peshawar and cooler hilly regions seed should be sown during spring and, more than likely, the plants will be perfectly good perennials.

Indigenous species of wild sage are found almost all over Pakistan but, whilst perfectly useable, they are not quite as ‘strong’ as Salvia officinalis and neither are their flowers so eye-catching. A useful species, easily grown as an annual although it is really a biennial, is ‘Salvia sclarea’ or Clary sage, an equally useful herb with highly decorative purple, pink or white bracts, and whilst it is very different from ‘Salvia splendens’, the normal sock-you-in-the-eye garden variety which doesn’t have any of the medicinal or culinary merits mentioned above, it is a wonderful addition to anyone’s garden.

Sage, in any form, should not be taken internally for any length of time and not at all if you happen to be pregnant or suffer from epilepsy. Salvia officinalis has a high content of volatile oil of which up to 50 per cent is Thujone and in excess this is toxic. Do not concoct your own herbal remedies as this can be dangerous, please leave this to the experts.


Source: The Dawn Review

Published on: 10/23/2012

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