The mystical sage – a decoration and a healer in the garden

Maria Palusalu, Palusalu Garden

According to various sources, the salvia family includes more than 700 varieties, including both annuals and perennials, herbaceous perennials and half-shrubs with lignified shoots. With its colour shades and, usually, sky-blue blossoms, the sage is one of the favourites among grasses or in a rose bed. It is also a valued herb and medicinal plant and deserves its place in an herb bed.

In addition to its decorative looks and therapeutic properties, the sage attracts insects who assist in pollinating useful and decorative plants.

The healing sage 

The common sage (Salvia officinalis) is one of the oldest medicinal plants known to people. It originates from the Mediterranean countries. Sage was used in the antiquity and the Middle Ages already for treating people, and in current folk medicine, the common sage is an irreplaceable plant. The common sage is also a well-known and beloved herb, particularly in the Mediterranean kitchen: it is added to salads, meat, fish and egg dishes.

The leaves are collected before blooming. The common sage has been used to treat lack of appetite, dysentery, skin abscesses, itching, bladder problems, excessive sleepiness, pneumonia, colds, cramps, anxiety and joint pain. The tannins and bitter substances in sage promote digestion, reduce bloating and help against stomach and intestinal spasms. The essential oils in common sage are antibacterial and to some extent antiviral. 

Sage tea is used, among other things, to suppress lactation when stopping breastfeeding. However, sage should not be consumed excessively – three cups of tea a day is a sufficient amount and should not be exceeded. 

The common sage is also used as a decorative plant – not only because of its purplish-blue blossoms, but also the striking evergreen leaves partly remaining on the plant for the winter. Varieties with colourful leaves have been cultivated: Aurea (yellow leaves), Icterina (leaves are coloured yellow and green), Purpurascens (faded purple leaves), Tricolor (three-colour leaves). The varieties look great, but are not fully cold-hardy in Estonia. The original variety (common sage) is rather cold-hardy, prefers light soils and sunny sites. In excessive moisture, the plant becomes cold-sensitive.

There are other sage varieties with healing properties as well. The most well-known of them is definitely chia (Salvia hispanica): its seeds can be mixed into various foods and consumed to reduce body weight or decrease the risk of coronary heart diseases. Chia is an annual plant. 

The prominent sage in a flowerbed 

Salvia nemorosa or the woodland sage is one of the most popular and widely used sage varieties in garden design, and cold-hardy in our climate. The woodland sage has many varieties with a long blooming time from June to September. With its candle-shaped upright blossoms, the plant provides beautiful contrast to geraniums, sedums, yarrows, echinacea, alchemilla and roses. Even after blossoming, the upright flowerheads which turn black in the autumn create an exciting structure in the flowerbed. The classic and more well-known varieties are Caradonna (violet-blue, 50 cm tall), Mainacht (blue, 50 cm), Blauhügel (blue, 50 cm), Ostfriesland (violet-blue, 40 cm), Amethyst (pink, 50 cm), Schneehügel (white, 50 cm). A very small and compact variety is Markus, which is great to use in a rock garden. The woodland sage needs a dry and sunny site to grow and blossom abundantly.

Salvia verticillata “Purple Rain” or the lilac sage is an upright (up to 60 cm tall) rich-blooming sage variety with purple blossoms, perfect to grow in natural gardens. The lilac sage Purple Rain is one of the favourite plants of the renowned garden designer Piet Oudolf. In Estonia, it is a cold-hardy plant and seeds itself easily in favourable conditions. Similarly to other sage varieties, the lilac sage loves a sunny, permeable, humus-rich and dry planting site. The plant grows well in perennial beds exposed to sunlight most of the time, but short periods in half-shade are alright as well. Matches well with roses and can also be used alone or in groups in perennial beds or containers. Propagation every few years extends the lilac sage’s life span and promotes blooming.

Salvia sclarea or the clary sage is a very decorative two-year plant. In the first year, it grows a rosette of leaves and blooms the next year. With its spectacular blossoms, bracts and the blooming scent, it attracts various insects. Loves sunny and dry sites. The leaves are sensitive to snail attacks. Matches great with lavender. The blossoms and leaves can be added to pancake dough, for example; the plant has even been used to add aroma to wine. Valuable essential oil is made from clary sage and used in aromatherapy to induce positive emotions.

Salvia guaranitica “Amistad” is an undemanding sage variety with a really particular blue shade, and it doesn’t even have a name in Estonian yet. It is not cold-hardy in our climate as it originates from the warm Mexico, but can be grown as a striking annual bloomer. The plant blooms from the end of May up to the arrival of cold temperatures and grows into a shrub about 90–120 cm tall and the same size in width. Matches well with grasses and other perennials and single-flowered dahlias, for example.

Salvia azurea “Grandiflora” or the blue sage – just like the name says, the plant with its bright clear blue blossoms is a sage variety blooming until the autumn, looking great in natural gardens or as a component of flower beds. Even though the plant is not fully cold-hardy in our climate, its beauty and peculiarity make it worth growing. The blue sage grows on calcareous and poor soils in sunny sites – in conditions like these, it could be attempted to make it survive the winter when covered up. Partners well with autumn asters, the crimson beebalm, Culver’s root, echinacea, coneflowers and grasses. 

Salvia viridis or the painted sage is a plant with fancy white, violet or pink bracts, grown in Estonia as an annual plant. Flower stalks can be used both as cut flowers or dried up for winter decorations. Loves sunny sites; can also be grown in containers or plant boxes. Sown directly to the growth site and later, thinned out or sown seed by seed with sufficient space in between (20 cm). The painted sage can be pregrown so it would start blooming earlier. Painted sage infusion is used to treat various illnesses. 

Salvia farinacea or the mealy sage is one of the most well-known sage varieties used in city greenery or grown in home gardens. Loves sunny sites and rich well-drained soils. In garden design, gives a nice upright accent. Suitable for growing in both flowerbeds and containers. The mealy sage looks good both freshly cut and when dried up for the winter. The plant is easy to grow as there are mostly no diseases and pests that affect it. If young plants are pinched back, more blossoms will develop.

Salvia splendens or the scarlet sage is an annual sage that is also widely used in city greenery and grown in home gardens. Its leaves may vary from bright red to light yellow or wine red. Grows well in rich soils in sunny sites. The scarlet sage has many varieties, with their height ranging from 15 cm to 1.2 metres. We have the most well-known spectacular variety with bright red leaves.

Several sage types and varieties can be enjoyed in the summer in the Palusalu Garden where the sage grow next to grasses and perennials.