Sage is a native of Southern Europe and likes a sandy, well-drained compost in a sunny position. It’s official name,Salvia, comes from the Latin salvare, which means, ‘to save’ and points to its long use as a medicinal herb. The Ancient Greeks believed sage could render man immortal and there are numerous legends of long-lived Princes who regularly drank cups of sage tea whilst an Anglo-Saxon manuscript says ‘why should a man die whilst sage grows in his garden.’ The Romans considered it one of the sacred herbs and harvesting the leaves was an important ritual. The leaves had to be cut using a bronze or silver knife and harvesters had to be barefoot, clean and dressed in white tunics. In the 18th century the Chinese prized sage so much they would trade one crate of sage for three of their finest tea.
So what makes sage so sought after? Well, the plant contains powerful antiseptic oils and is still used for sore throats and mouth ulcers. Pouring boiling water on fresh sage leaves provides an excellent inhalant for infected sinuses. Its anti-microbial properties could also explain its use in stuffing with onion (which has similar properties) in the days when meat wasn’t always fresh. It also has the added bonus of being an excellent carminative, which soothes and calms the digestive system.
But it’s not just its ability to kill germs that makes sage special. Sage also means wisdom and the herb has long been associated with longevity and restoring memory in the elderly. Research has shown that sage has the ability to reduce the action of an enzyme associated with dementia and medical herbalists often use sage, together with rosemary, to help patient’s with memory problems. It has been shown to significantly increase memory function in patients with Alzheimer. However, before you start eating lots of sage, you should be aware that it contains small amounts of Thujone, the chemical in Absinthe which makes drinkers of this liqueur go mad. So sage shouldn’t be taken in large doses or for more than 2 weeks at a time.
Also unique in herbs, sage stops sweating so is used a lot by herbalists to treat hot flushes in menopausal women. However, it has a powerful effect on the uterus and is used during childbirth to expel the placenta, so should never be used during pregnancy. The famous herbalist, Culpeper, recommends a decoction of the leaves and branches to help bring on women’s periods and expel the placenta after birth. He also recommends the decoction made with wine “takes away the itching of the testicles, if they be bathed therewith”.