Sage is a variable evergreen perennial shrub, with strong taproot and square, woody branching stems up to 75cm/2ft6in tall. It is grey and woolly when young. It has grey-green colored soft leaves, with a pebbly texture which are oblong or lanceolate, and finely toothed. Whorls of violet-blue flowers appear in spikes in summer.
Sage is commonly found growing wild on hillsides and grassland on chalk in warm regions; it is widely cultivated as a pot herb in Mediterranean countries. Sage has become a popular herb garden shrub with numerous forms and decorative varieties, some gold or variegated. The best culinary sages are the plain narrow-leafed and non-flowering broad-leaved types.
An ancient herb, Sage is popular as a potent condiment for meat, fish, Mediterranean dishes, English Sage Derby Cheese, and as a basis for sage tea, taken to counteract sweating. Infusion of Sage can used to treat depression, nervous anxiety and liver disorders; homeopathic preparations can be given for circulation and menopausal problems.
The leaves are also antiseptic, used in gargles for laryngitis and tonsillitis, and as a mouth freshener and tooth cleanser. It also provides an essential oil which can be used in perfumery.
Sage should be grown in well-drained, rich soil, in full sun and with shelter from cold winds. Cuttings should be taken in spring and summer, or by layering (mounding for older bushes). Nip off points of shoots to induce bushy growth, and renew every 4-5 years as shrubs become leggy.
Freshly picked leaves, or leaves dried in shade, picked before flowering have various herbal uses. Alternatively, leaves picked when in flower can be used for oil distillation.
To bring out the best flavor from the leaves, do not use to a lot of it, as too much will produce an unpleasant taste. This is especially with the dried herb: the flavor of the sage leaves became more intensive as they dry. Drying the herb can be a bit tricky, because its broad fleshy leaves have a tendency to mold. Hanging the herb in a dark, warm, arid place with good ventilation is an effective method for producing crisp, long lasting leaves.