SAGE/CLARY SAGE (Salvia officinalis/Salvia sclarea – Labiatae)

The herbs sage and clary sage belong to a genus of some 448 species which are hardy evergreen sub-shrubs native to southern Europe. Both have grey-green and wrinkled ovate leaves (clary sage’s are very much larger), and tubular flowers: those of sage are violet-blue and bloom in June and July; those of clary are blue-white and bloom in August. Sages hug the ground but can grow up to 60 cm (2 ft); clary can grow to a height of 90 cm (3 ft), and is sufficiently decorative to be grown in a flower border. There are other varieties, which include variegated and pineapple-scented.

Salvia officinalis, garden or common sage, is a plant familiar to most of us, and has been cultivated for centuries for its culinary and medicinal properties, the best reputedly coming from Dalmatia. S. sclarea is less well known, but it is extensively cultivated for its oil which is valuable both medicinally and cosmetically. Other varieties used for distillation are S. verticulata and S. candelabrum. All yield oils which are similar in composition and therapeutic properties. The world annual production of the essential oil is about 100 tonnes.

Sage’s medicinal properties were known to the Romans and it was they who introduced the herb to Britain. The name derives from the Latin salvere, to save, and another name was salvia salvatrix, the plant which saves and heals. An aphorism recorded from the School of Salerno runs: ‘Cur morietur homo, cui salvia crescit in horto?’ (how can a man die who has sage growing in his garden?). The Greeks too valued sage: it was one of the 400 simples of Hippocrates, and Dioscorides praised it for its effectiveness in treating liver diseases. The Ancient Greeks also considered it good for helping diminution of senses and loss of memory; today a tea made with sage leaves is still drunk in Greece. The Ancient Egyptians gave it to women who were unable to bear children, and used it as a remedy against the plague.

In the Middle Ages, the great herbals all praised sage, and clary sage was on the list of herbs ordered by a Winthrop newly settled in the New World from a London supplier in 1631. In 1639, Simon Pauli wrote a book of some 400 pages, all of them on the subject of this remarkable herb; and Saint-Simon at the court of the Sun King related that Louis was daily prescribed this panacea. An old French saying goes; ‘Sage helps the nerves and by its powerful might/ Palsy is cured and put to flight’. A cure-all indeed.

The name of clary sage derives from the Latin clarus, meaning clear, and it became ‘clary’ meaning ‘clear eye’, because clary was once so valued in eye treatments. The seeds were collected and infused to use on tired, strained eyes, or on those suffering from blurred vision. The seeds were also used as a mucilage applied on inflammations of the skin such as swellings and abscesses.

Apart from its historical reputation, research done in 1938 by biologists Kroszcinski and Bychowska showed sage to be a plant healer because of its emmenagogical properties: they recommended it for frigidity, congestion of the ovaries, and for aches, pains and heavy sweating associated with menstruation or menopause. Its therapeutic properties in women’s problems were echoed by many French therapists, including Dr Leclerc, who praised sage as an emmenagogue, tonic and stimulant, and for being antisudorific, antispasmodic, a blood cleanser, carminative and strong antiseptic.


Description: The oil of S.officinalis, the true Dalmatian sage, is steam distilled from the leaves. It is a pale yellow-green, and it smells very aromatic, sometimes with a camphor note. The best clary sage oil is steam distilled from the green parts of the plants, especially the flowering tops. The oil is similar in colour to sage, but has a more winey, ambergris-like odour. The plant used to be extensively cultivated in France for the oil, but now Russia is the main supplier, distillation taking place in the Crimea and probably the Ukraine.
The principal constituents: Borneol, camphor, cineole, a-pinene and salvene. The oil is chiefly characterized, however, by its thujone content, which can vary from 22 – 61 per cent in the Dalmatian product. Italian and American sage oils also have high thujone contents. The main constituents of clary sage oil are linalool and linalyl acetate; there is no thujone content. Dangers: I advise self-treatment with clary sage essential oil only, and check very carefully that it is pure and from a reputable source.

Because of its high thujone content, sage oil should not be used, particularly by sensitive or young people; taken internally it can be fatal. (Other plants and oils which contain thujone are thuja, tansy and wormwood, the plant once used in the making of absinthe, now banned.) I find it alarming that the bulk of sage oil, formally classified as a convulsant (similar to oil of wormwood) is used in the food industry for flavouring table sauce, canned and packed foods, soups, meat and especially sausages.


In illness
Clary sage is an all-round panacea. It can help debility of the nervous system, general fatigue, irritability, and depression, weakness of digestion, all the women’s complaints, liver trouble and congestion, asthmatic conditions and rheumatic fevers, aches and pains. It can also be used in the treatment of cuts, burns, eczema, thrush and herpes. Merely drinking a tea made from clary sage leaves can help a variety of ailments ranging from sore throats and headaches, to promoting menstruation and preventing the pain of labour (take the tea daily for four weeks prior to delivery).

(See also abscesses and boils, amenorrhoea, catarrh, gum disease, hair problems, palpitations and stress.)

Massage oil for women’s problems
For those suffering from anxiety, from swelling or puffiness, due to PMT or the menopause, simply mix together 10 ml (2 tsp) grapeseed oil and 3 drops of clary sage oil. Massage this on the stomach and solar plexus twice a day.

Leg remedy
This is ideal for all those people who have to stand for several hours each day, and who suffer from heavy, swollen and congested legs. Mix together 10 ml (2 tsp) soya oil and 4 drops of clary sage oil. In the evening, take a warm (not hot) bath, and starting from the ankles, massage upwards with the oil to the knees until the oil is absorbed. Then lie back on your bed or on the floor, with your legs raised on a thick cushion, for 10 minutes.

In beauty
Clary sage oil is used a great deal by the perfumery industry as a fixative; it is generally added to floral compositions, and gives body as well.

Sage in general is famed for its hair and mouth properties. Sage leaves have been used for centuries by the Arabs as a tooth cleanser; rub leaves over the teeth to polish and scent them, or crush leaves with salt for a remedy for yellowing teeth. A sage decoction is also good as a mouth¬wash or gargle for sore throats, or infected gums or mouth ulcers.

Pre-shampoo conditioner
Sage leaves are tonic, and good for hair, conditioning and darkening it; thinning and greying hair can benefit particularly. The following is an excellent pre-shampoo conditioner. The quantities given make a month’s supply.

  • 30 ml (2 tbsp) grapeseed oil
  • 3 drops wheatgerm oil
  • 8 drops clary sage essential oil

Mix together and store in a dark bottle. Rub a little into the scalp and roots of the hair very briskly for a few minutes. Wrap hair in a towel and leave for an hour or more. Shampoo out completely (you may need two or three applications of shampoo to remove it). For split ends apply to the ends of the hair only.
A useful decoction can be made from simmering a large handful of sage leaves in 600 ml (1 pint) water for 4 – 5 minutes; remove from the heat then cover and leave to infuse for half an hour before straining and cooling. This will keep for two to three days in the fridge and can be rubbed into the scalp for greying hair. Do this daily, saturating the hair and roots, and leaving it to dry. It also makes a conditioning hair rinse to be used after shampooing.

In cookery
Any of sage’s benefits can be obtained by eating the fresh leaves of the plant. Add them to salads as the Elizabethans did (sparingly perhaps, as many people find the flavour too strong), to simple vegetable soups, and to traditional stuffings for rich meats such as pork and goose (the famous sage and onion), to help their digestion. Garnish egg, tomato and cheese dishes with sage, indeed some English cheeses are flavoured and coloured by sage leaves (Sage Derby, for example). Sage goes well with pork, and finds its way into many of the best pork sausages but it must be the fresh leaf (see page 192). The Italians use sage a lot more than the French, wrapping leaves and ham in slices of veal for saltimbocca, and cooking it with liver (the herb helps fix the iron in the liver, and helps its digestion as well). In many countries, small wild birds are cooked in a wrapping of sage leaves, and in Germany the herb lends its flavour to dishes of eel. In the Middle East, sage is used a lot in salads, and between chunks of lamb in kebabs.

Sage leaves can be crystallized, and one of the major exports of Yugoslavia is a superb sage honey. Add leaves of a sage – pineapple¬ scented, say – to savoury jellies, or use in mulled wines or ales. Clary sage was used once in combination with elderflowers to give wine the flavour of muscatel (thus the German name meaning muscatel sage, Muskatellersalbez). It is also used in the making of vermouth.

Serves 4

  • 24 large clary sage leaves, washed and dried
  • 300 ml (1/2 pint) fresh milk
  • 4 eggs
  • 75 g (3 oz) plain flour
  • 1 lemon

salt, freshly grated nutmeg and black pepper corn oil for deep frying.

Make a good stiff batter with the milk, eggs and flour, adding a little grated lemon rind, nutmeg, salt and pepper. Cut away the stalks from the leaves, then drop the leaves into the batter, making sure they are well coated on both sides. Deep-fry in hot oil, turning once, until a light brown, then drain well. Serve sprinkled with some fresh lemon juice as a starter or first course – easy and delicious.

Other uses
Sage can be included in pot-pourris. The flowers are very attractive to bees – thus the Yugoslav honey – and if you plant sage among vegetables, you will discourage many insect pests.

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