By Rachel Webster

Common sage specimen, seeds and illustration on a 19th century herbarium sheet from Leo Grindon's cultivated plant collection
Common sage specimen, seeds and illustration on a 19th century herbarium sheet from Leo Grindon’s cultivated plant collection

There are many more gastronomically interesting options available at Christmas time, but I’m still always drawn to the reassuringly traditional sage and onion stuffing. Nowadays, in addition to stuffing poultry, sage is often used to flavour other meat dishes (particularly sausages in British cuisine). However, its scientific name, Salvia officinalis, shows its heritage as a medicinal herb. The species name ‘officinalis’ comes from the Latin word officina meaning a monastic storeroom for herbs and medicines. Sage was recommended for all kinds of ills, from wounds and sore throats to hair care and fertility problems. There’s something about this suggestion from Gerard’s Herbal, however, which seems especially appropriate for overindulgent holidays:

Sage is singular good for the head and braine, it quickeneth the sense and memory, strengtheneth the sinews….’ John Gerard, 1597

This year, perhaps an extra bit of sage with my turkey could give me the edge over my competitors in any after-dinner Christmas board games!

Images of two Sage plants, one with broad leaves, one with narrow. Probably Salvia officinalis and Salvia lavandulifolia
Gerard’s Herball, 1597

Sage is in the mint family (also known as the Lamiacaeae). Many of the plants in this family are aromatic, but sage also shows some other very recognisable characteristics of the family such as a square stem, leaves in opposite pairs and flowers with bilateral symmetry with the five petals fused to give the appearance of an upper and a lower lip.

Originating from the Mediterranean, sage enjoys plenty of sunshine and doesn’t like to get too wet over winter but is quite tolerant of low temperatures. The furry leaves help to keep insect pests at bay, but cultivars which flower freely are very attractive to pollinating insects such as honeybees and many different bumblebees.

Sage flower
19th century botanical teaching model of a sage flower produced by Brendel, Germany.

The sage flower has an interesting mechanism for getting pollinated. As pollinator enters the flower looking for nectar it has to push past part of the stamen which is blocking the way. This acts as a lever, so that the stamens tip forwards and leave pollen on the back of the insect. When it visits another flower, the insect can brush against the female stigma depositing the pollen. Some bees have learnt to cheat, however, and you can find small holes at the base of flowers where a bee has bitten through and drunk the nectar from the outside.

For the full story of sage and much more on the amazing plants at Manchester Herbarium see Herbology Manchester.


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