By now, we should all know that there seems to be a neverending number of types of sage available at the local garden center. But what exactly are sage plants? Are they all part of the desert landscape, or sagebrush on the prairie?
Happily for us, there’s a lot more to sage than meets the eye. A number of them are flavorful additions as either a fresh or dried herb. They’ve been used as part of traditional medicines by tribal groups. Many of them are great lures for butterflies or other pollinators, and they’re staples in pollinator gardens.
There’s no way to cover all forms of sage in a singular piece of work because of the diversity of this species. So let’s start out by narrowing down the category to one botanical species: the salvias, of which there are many.
What Is Sage?
The Salvia genus of plants is the largest in the Lamiaceae family. That family of plants includes the mints and many other forms of culinary herbs as well, but Salvia species stand above and beyond the rest.
But before you go out to harvest that wild sagebrush, you need to know that there are many non-Salvias that are referred to as sage. Most of them actually are called sagebrush in some way, and most of these species are actually members of the Artemesia genus and more closely related to wormwood.
So what exactly is sage, then? For most, that lies purely in the Salvia genus, a collection of more than a thousand annuals and perennials that vary from herbaceous and low-lying herbs all the way through large shrubs. Some stay compact and small; other varieties grow massive, with one plant able to reach up to eight or nine feet tall and wide.
Not all sage is edible. Some varieties are purely ornamental, but they tend to be wonderful for pollinator gardens. If you need to entice bees to come pollinate other plants, adding one of these inedible sages may do the trick.
Most of us think of roughly oval leaves with a point, a bit thick, sometimes almost fuzzy in appearance. That describes the most common culinary sage varieties, but there’s so much more to these plants. They flower in a huge array of colors. Their leaves could be silvery-grey, deep forest green, or even purple or yellow in hue. They are outstanding additions as both ornamentals and culinary plants, and I can’t imagine why people wouldn’t always want sage in their gardens!
Culinary Sage Types
The most commonly known sage is the one referred to as common sage. Salvia officinalis makes up the majority of what the home herb gardener might start with.
But we aren’t limited to just that species, so let’s go over a collection of culinary delights that will treat your taste buds while simultaneously creating a vibrant and lovely display in the garden!
Think of what you see as sage at the supermarket in the fresh herb aisle, and you may be thinking of common sage, also called culinary sage or garden sage. It typically has a light green color, maybe with just the faintest silvery tinge when fresh. When cut and dried, it looks virtually indistinguishable from any other herb, and the powdered form has a faint greenish hue.
But did you know that sage leaves might be brilliant golden, or purple, or deep green edged in white? Moreover, their flowers can be edible and make a good garnish or pop of color in a salad. Of the types of sage we’re covering, this culinary herb is one of the most diverse in the best of ways.
There are dozens of Salvia officinalis cultivars available. With all of these different types of sage, it can be hard to choose, but all of these sage plants are widely available varieties:
- Berggarten: Produces showy whorls of lavender-blue flowers in the late spring.
- Bicolor Icterina: The leaves are bicolored, with cream-colored edges and silvery-green centers.
- Curly: Just as its name might indicate, this has distinctive curly, rippled leaves.
- Dwarf Green: Tightly-compact version of the species, sometimes called ‘Minimus’
- Golden Sage: A golden-leaved variety, also referred to as ‘Aurea’
- Grower’s Friend: Non-flowering, this has red-colored stems and medium-green, upright leaves.
- Holt’s Mammoth: Very similar to the base Salvia officinalis, but with huge leaves.
- Pink Flower: Also called ‘Rosea’, this variety produces pink flowers instead of lavender-blue.
- Purpurea: Also referred to as ‘Purpurescens’ or ‘Purple Sage’, with vivid purple leaves.
- Tricolor Sage: Its leaves are marbled with grey-green, white, and purplish-pink and are stunning.
- White Edged: A deeper-green center of the leaf with stark white edges, very pretty.
- Window Box: Stays under a foot tall, but performs well as a container plant.
There are also a few subspecies which are notable. Of those, the most essential to me is Salvia officinalis ssp. lavandulifolia, commonly named Spanish sage. This subspecies has a much milder flavor than most of the above-mentioned cultivars and lacks the camphor-like notes of a typical Salvia officinalis.
Learn More: Common Sage
Most people know this as pineapple sage. Like officinalis, this sage species has an array of cultivars that have gained in popularity. In most cases, these are known for their fruity aroma and hint of citrus-like flavor.
Some have variegated foliage. Others have distinctive, incredible edible flowers. All of them are stunning and unusual compared to what we find at the mega-mart.
Here’s some of the different types of sage in the Salvia elegans cultivar collection:
- Elk Sonoran Red: This has the aroma of pineapple, but brilliant scarlet-red flowers.
- Frieda Dixon: Late fall blooms of salmon-pink make this a popular variety.
- Golden Delicious: Crimson flowers over bright golden foliage, very eye-catching.
- Honey Melon: Tubular scarlet flowers and a sweet tangerine aroma.
- Pineapple: Medium-red flowers and a pineapple aroma and flavor to its leaves.
- Tangerine: Citrus-scented with deep red flowers and a very compact size.
The grape-scented sage, sometimes called grape sage, is a lesser-known tea herb. Both its leaves and flowers are used in teas as a spark of unusual flavor. The flowers themselves have a freesia-like aroma and can be used as an edible garnish.
More often than not, if you go to the bulk aisle of your grocery store and look for sage, you’ll discover this. Greek sage is the most prevalent form of dried culinary sage for sale. As you can imagine, this can be perplexing to people as their garden sage never tastes quite like it does in the store. But we can lay that confusion to rest now!
The young, tender shoots or leaves are used to add flavor to food, and like its relative Salvia melissordora it is used in the production of teas. Greek sage is popular abroad as Faskomilo tea.
Clary sage has edible flowers and leaves as well, but is probably best known as the sage your grandmother’s blouse smelled like. It’s been used for centuries as dried bundles tucked into dressers or trunks to enhance clothing with its balsam-like fragrance.
Not drought-tolerant like other forms of sage, clary sage likes consistent and regular watering and cooler conditions. It’s usually a biennial but may be a tender perennial in cool climates.
The fruit-scented sage, also just called fruit sage, comes from Central America. Its fragrant pink flowers are show-stoppers and are delicious, and the large leaves make for an easy harvest for drying and storage.
Sure, you could eat the leaves of grapefruit sage if you’d like; they’re quite similar to other culinary sages. But where this one excels is in its flowers. These large, juicy flowers are packed full of sweet nectar. Not only do they draw in pollinators, but they’re delicious picked straight from the plant and popped into your mouth!
This unique South African sage has a taste that’s reminiscent of lemon and pepper. It’s distinctly different from other sages in that flavor, and makes the perfect complimentary spice for seafood dishes.
In Mexico, this sage is called mirto de montes, which translates to myrtle of the mountains. But everywhere else, it’s called blackcurrant sage or Graham’s sage. It has a flavor not unlike that of black currants when made into a tea. While it can be used for non-tea purposes, this is often used in desserts.
We’ve covered growing this tribal favorite extensively in the past. But yes, white sage is in fact edible and is delicious. Its flavor is a bit more pine-like than most other culinary sages, and it can be an incredible addition to your herb and spice collection. I use it more often than I do common sage, but that’s because I’m extremely fond of its flavor! Just remember to keep it in well-draining soil and full sun for best growth.
Learn More: White Sage
Salvia hispanica and Salvia columbariae
Every time you’ve grown one of those silly chia heads, you’ve been growing a type of sage. The same applies to those chia seeds we love to mix into our overnight oatmeal.
Salvia hispanica is known as Mexican chia. It’s not grown for its leaves, but purely for its hydrophilic seeds. When exposed to moisture, the seed creates a gel around itself. This makes it especially popular in overnight oatmeal, smoothies, and more!
Salvia columbariae is chia, golden chia, desert chia, or chia sage depending on who you ask. Also grown for its seeds, this annual grows in the southwestern deserts of the United States. Chia was an important food source for Native American tribes in the region, who all gave it their own names. Amongst the Tongva (Gabrieleno) tribe, it was called pashiiy. The Ventureño Chumash called the chia it’epeš. There were many other names for this useful and nutritious seed, too.
Two subspecies exist of the golden chia, both of which are used similarly to the base variety:
- Salvia columbariae var. columbariae: This is called chia or California sage.
- Salvia columbariae var. ziegleri: Referred to as Ziegler’s sage.
Ornamental Sage Types
Not all varieties of sage are edible. And while you can happily grow a diversity of culinary garden sage plants, there’s also a lot of different types with gorgeous flower spikes, brilliant red or pink or blue flowers, and more. Remember, the salvia genus has more than a thousand plants in it, and you don’t have to limit yourself to the color you’ll find in the edible varieties!
So let’s discuss some of the ornamental sage plants that will draw in all of your beneficial insects, bring your sage garden to life, and cause it to explode in seasonal color.
An immense plant, the prawn sage can reach up to 8 feet tall and wide. Its name actually comes from the unusual flowers it produces, as they resemble brilliantly red shrimp heads. The fragrant plant blooms from mid-summer well into the fall months.
Somewhat challenging to grow, Salvia haenkei is not a drought-tolerant species. Provide it with consistent and regular soil moisture and it’ll be happier. It is not cold-tolerant either, and performs best in USDA zones 9-11 in partially-shaded locations.
This California perennial called Sonoma sage is most common in chaparral plant environments. The plant itself rarely gets over a foot tall, and is considered a subshrub. However, it puts up purple or blue flowers on spikes that stand proudly over its foliage, and is rapidly gaining popularity in areas where it normally performs best.
In the wild, it grows in foothill chaparral environments and is common along the coast from Monterey to San Diego. It can also be found along the California coastal range from Napa County to Siskyou County, as well as in the Sierra foothills. It performs well in cultivation, and a white-flowered cultivar has been developed along with its other blue or purple shades.
Learn More: Sonoma Sage
Autumn sage typically likes higher elevations, and its natural habitat extends from Texas into Mexico through the Chihuahuan desert. It performs well in cultivation as a low hedge or shrub, usually no more than 2-3 feet in height.
Its leaves have a minty aroma, and it produces flowers in a range of colors from reds and pinks through oranges and purples. It’s also a low-maintenance plant, as it’s drought-tolerant, typically free of pest or disease issues, and doesn’t like to be fertilized. It prefers well-draining soils, and while it can be used culinarily, it’s mostly grown as an ornamental.
Full sun to three-quarter sun is ideal for hummingbird sage, sometimes called anise-scented sage due to the aroma of its leaves. This lovely plant performs as an annual in most areas but may be a tender perennial in warmer climates.
It produces lovely deep blue, tubular flowers with purple-blue calyxes that are perfect for drawing in hummingbirds. Dark green leaves extend out from squarish dark green stems that as an annual range around 3 feet in length. If grown as a perennial, they can get as large as 5-6 feet long, and the plant can be a major feature of the right garden.
Often referred to as Mexican bush sage, this herbaceous perennial is native to subtropical and tropical portions of Mexico. Somewhat compact, the medium green leaves and stems rarely extend more than 2-3 feet out from the plant’s base.
What Salvia leucantha is known for are its long and arching racemes of flowers. These flowers have white tips that descend down into a tubular lavender calyx, and they produce bright color that entices bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies throughout the late summer. They prefer evenly moist soil and provide quite a floral show when they bloom!
Salvia van houtteii
Lovely burgundy or wine-red flowers are the norm for this type of garden sage. The plants themselves are bedecked in medium green leaves that are deer-tolerant and will hold up to occasional nibbling. But it’s those stunning, drooping flower spikes with vivid color that are most commonly remarked upon, as they’re truly magnificent.
A good plant for a lightly shaded environment, the burgundy scarlet sage can be found in zones 7 and above. It is not a drought-tolerant variety and prefers consistent moisture and well-draining soil.
Blue sage, sometimes called Cleveland sage or Jim sage, is a southern California native perennial. Popular throughout the southwestern US, it’s been in cultivation since the 1940s and there are many different types to be found. It can reach 4-5 feet in height and width, and its ashy green leaves are distinctive amidst other darker hues.
These flower in a whorl atop their flower spikes, with tubular lavender or amethyst flowers erupting from the circular shape. An excellent pollinator plant, these prefer well-draining and slightly sandy soils.
Salvia chamaedryoides, or germander sage, is sometimes referred to as blue oak sage or Mexican blue sage. Reaching 12″-18″ in height and 3-4 feet in width, this lovely plant is a popular ground cover in xeriscape gardens. The blue flowers make it an incredible pollinator plant as well.
Learn More: Germander Sage