I’m thankful for so many things, for example a loving family; good health; the ability to garden, read, and see and to listen to birds sing, wind blow, and ocean waves break on-shore; the rights I’m afforded by living in the U.S., and you, my readers. But when I’m preparing Thanksgiving dinner, and specifically the homemade stuffing that traditionally goes into our turkey, I can’t help but sing praises for common sage (Salvia officinalis).
Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs offers a rather ordinary description for this herb – a hardy perennial subshrub with woody, wiry stems that are square and covered with down. This rather nondescript description, however, does not give sage its due.
My ordinary Salvia officinalis, happy now for about a dozen years in the same spot, is the main source of fresh picked sage and sage for drying. It leafs out later than many perennials but holds its own against other plants once the stems fill with gray-green fuzzy leaves and the early-summer blue-lavender flowers open. Its fresh leaves flavor egg dishes and summer salads, and large sage leaves, lightly sprayed with olive oil and grilled until crisp is a taste not to be missed.
Still, the bulk of the leaves from this one shrub end up in tied bunches, hung upside down to dry.
Harvested in September (left photo), leaves are amply dry by Thanksgiving (right photo).
Early on Thanksgiving Day, with a fresh brewed cup of coffee nearby and cranberry orange bread warming in the oven, this dried sage becomes the mainstay flavoring ingredient for homemade bread stuffing. I’m warmed by the pungent scent of dried sage leaves being crushed between my palms, but the essential Thanksgiving aroma comes from sage combined into home-made bread cubes stuffing with celery, onions, home grown and dried thyme, turkey stock, apples, and cranberries.
If this alone is not reason enough to include sage in sunny planting beds, there’s more cause to be thankful.
- Sage tolerates, in fact prefers, drier soils – no need to spend time and energy watering
- Sage requires little care – just prune off damaged branches and remove spent blossoms
- Sage is deer resistant. I’ve never, in all my years of gardening, seen sage nibbled by deer
- Except for occasional caterpillar munching (some is evident in the photo above), sage is rarely bothered by unwanted pests.
- Common non-variegated sage shrubs can be excellent additions to perennial beds. When happy – no wet feet and in full sun – they grow about two feet tall and wide (at least in Connecticut). As such, sage shrubs make nice back drops for lower blooming perennials or annuals, or act to hide unattractive lower regions of taller blooming plants.
I use more ornamental varieties, such as Tricolor with green, white, and red leaf color variegation and golden-edged Icterina with yellow and green leaf coloring, in perennial beds in need of some season-long, little-care, color-boost. I’m not overly impressed with Tricolor’s flavor, scent, drying ability, or hardiness in my zone 6a garden (I’ve had to replace Tricolor many times) but the interesting leaf variegation continues to speak to me. Golden-edged Icterina holds a nice flavor used fresh or dried. Icterina still thrives in my gardens after three very different winters and even retains some color through the early snowfalls.
With northern gardeners heading into our season of garden dreaming, visualize a sunny,cry spot for sage. It’s a simple herb that offers extraordinary returns as a foliage plant and a source for home-grown flavor and fragrance.
Enjoy your Thanksgiving!