Sage (Salvia officinalis) is native to the Mediterranean and naturalized throughout Europe and North America. Known as garden sage, meadow sage, and true sage, this pungent herb is a member of the Lamiaceae, or mint, family. The genus name is taken from the Latin salvare meaning "to save." The specific name officinalis indicates that sage was included on official lists of medicinal herbs. There are numerous species of sage, including clary sage (S. sclarea) named because of its traditional use as an eyewash. Native Americans used the roots and leaves of lyre-leafed sage (S. lyrata L.), also known as cancerweed, as a salve for sores and in a tea to treat colds and coughs. Another species, known as divine sage (S. divinorum), a native of Oaxaca, Mexico, has been used for centuries by local shamans to achieve altered states of consciousness in healing rituals. There are many more garden varieties, including red or purple sage (S. officinalis purpurascens), which is valued particularly for its medicinal purposes.
Sage thrives in full sun and well-drained soils, growing wild in some areas. It is a hardy evergreen shrub with a deep taproot and an erect root stalk that produces woody, square, slightly downy, branching stems that may reach a height of 4 ft (1.2 m). This familiar garden perennial has long, light-green leaf stalks that bear simple opposite lance- or oval-shaped leaves. The strong and pliable leaves are veined, with a velvet-like somewhat crinkled texture and may grow to 2 in (5.1 cm) long in some varieties. Leaf margins resemble a fine embroidery finish with rounded minutely toothed edges. They are a gray-green on the top and lighter on the underside. The entire plant is strongly aromatic, with a familiar pungency. Fresh leaves are bitter to the taste. Sage blossoms in the middle of summer with small white, blue, or purple flowers.
Sage is a celebrated herb long valued for its many uses in medicine, magic, and meal preparation. Poets, shamans, herbalists, cooks, emperors, and common folk have touted its virtues for thousands of years. The Romans revered the herb as a sacred plant, and the Egyptians used it to treat the plague. Nicholas Culpeper, the seventeenth-century herbalist and astrologer, believed sage was under the dominion of Jupiter. Folk belief placed the herb under the influence of Venus, and sage was traditionally used to aid conception. One folk tradition encouraged eating a bit of sage each day during the month of May to assure immortality. Although it failed to live up to this promise, sage was traditionally planted on graves.
Sage's main constituents include volatile oil, diterpene bitters, thujone, camphor, tannins, triterpenoids, resin, flavonoids, estrogenic substances, phenolic acids, including rosmarinic and caffeic acids, and saponins. It acts as a carminative, antiperspirant, antispasmodic, astringent, antiseptic, and antibiotic. More recently, sage has been discovered to have antiallergic effects.
Sage has been used as a general tonic. It is the preferred beverage tea in many cultures, particularly in China, where the root of the species S. miltiorrhiza, known as dan shen, is used for its soothing and healing qualities. Sage has antioxidant properties that have recently been used by the food industry to improve the stability of oils that must be kept in storage for long periods of time.
Sage is also high in calcium. It provides potassium, magnesium, and zinc as well as vitamins C and B-complex. Sage is calming to the central nervous system and may reduce anxiety. It can soothe spasms in smooth and skeletal muscles. Sage is a bitter digestive stimulant and acts to relieve digestive problems. The herb also contains estrogenic substances that help to regulate menstruation.
Taken cold, the tea is astringent and diuretic, and will help to reduce night sweats in menopausal women and reduce milk flow in breast-feeding mothers. Taken hot, a sage infusion acts as an expectorant and is good for common colds and flu. A strong infusion of sage used as a hair rinse may darken hair color and help reduce hair loss. The antibacterial properties in sage make it a useful mouthwash for gingivitis and an antiseptic sore throat gargle. Sage is still listed in the United States Pharmacopoeia as a treatment for bleeding gums and sore throats. A tea made from the leaves may be used as an antiseptic wash for wounds and sores. Crushed leaves may be applied to relieve insect bites. The powdered herb, added to toothpaste and powders, helps to whiten teeth.
Some research indicates that sage may boost insulin action and be helpful to treat non-insulin dependent diabetes. The herb may reduce blood sugar levels and promote bile flow. Among its many virtues, sage is said to improve memory and bring prosperity to the household. Dried sage, burned as a smudge, is used in Native American rituals as a purifying and cleansing herb believed to promote healing, wisdom, protection, and longevity.
The leaf is the medicinal part of the herb. Both fresh and dried leaves may be used for medicinal or culinary purposes. The leaves are harvested when the herb begins to flower in the summer of its second year. The leaves are removed from the woody branches and spread in a single layer on a tray or screen in a warm, airy, and shady place. Exposure to direct sunlight during the drying process will result in a significant loss of the volatile oil. Dried leaves are stored in a dark, airtight container.
To make an infusion, 1 pint of nonchlorinated water that has just reached the boiling point is poured over 2–3 tsp of dried or fresh sage leaves in a glass container. The mixture is covered and steeped for 10–15 minutes. This liquid can be drunk warm or cold, up to 3 cups daily, or used as a gargle or hair rinse.
Tinctures of sage are available commercially. A standard dose is 16–40 drops, taken up to three times daily.
To make a sage compress, a clean cotton cloth is soaked in an infusion of sage leaves and then applied to wounds or sores to aid healing.
Sage preparations in medicinal doses should not be used during pregnancy, although use of small amounts of sage for culinary purposes is safe. Breast-feeding women should avoid sage unless they are using the herb to reduce the flow of breast milk when weaning. People with epilepsy should not use sage due to the thujone content in the herb. Thujone may trigger convulsions in these people, and the essential oil contains as much as 25% thujone. The essential oils may accumulate in the system, so long-term use of essential oils (more than two weeks at a time) should be avoided. Those allergic to sage or other plants in the mint family should avoid this herb.
There are no adverse side effects when sage is taken in designated therapeutic doses. However, sage may interfere with absorption of iron and other minerals
As of 2002, no interactions have been reported between sage and standard prescription medications.
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Rebecca J. Frey, PhD