Salvia: The jack of all trades



The plant genus sage (Salvia) belongs to the labiate family (Lamiaceae). For thousands of years, sage has been one of the most important medicinal plants, as the name “salvia” (from Latin “salvare” meaning to heal) suggests. In the medieval monastery gardens, the plant was one of the most widely used and indispensable herbs – thus sage also appears in the “Hortulus”, the herbal book of Abbot Walafrid Strabo The genus sage is extremely extensive – around 900 different species are known. There are annual and perennial herbaceous species. Some species and varieties are used exclusively as ornamental plants.

We have covered the different types of salvia plants in this article, and also introduced the salvia, as one of the edible plants here.

Appearance and growth

In the genus Sage one finds annual, biennial or perennial herbaceous plants, semi-shrubs and shrubs. Sage grows horny with numerous upright shoots and grows 30 to 50 centimetres high. The square stems are woody in the lower part and branch out. The leaves are long stalked, narrow to lanceolate, up to eight centimetres long and two centimetres wide. They are dull green and have dense greyish felt-like hairs. When rubbed, they give off a camphor-like smell. Depending on the species and variety, purple flower clusters appear on loose ears in false whorls on the plant from May to September. Among the numerous varieties there are also those with pink or white flowers

Location and soil

In general, sage likes a warm and sunny place with permeable soil that is not too rich in nitrogen. The plants also thrive well in flower pots and balcony boxes with humus-rich substrate.


Depending on the species and variety, the planting period and type vary The real sage (Salvia officinalis) is sown in April in the cold frame or in May in the open field. Later, the young plants are separated at a distance of 30 to 40 centimetres. Alternatively, you can also buy young plants in spring and divide them for propagation. Muscat sage (Salvia sclarea) can be sown outdoors in July. Steppe sage and its varieties, like most perennials, can be planted from spring to autumn.

Care tips

With the real sage, a half shrub, the older shoots become woody. Cut back the sage every year in the spring to prevent it from ageing, keeping it compact and allowing it to sprout again vigorously. The best time to do this is when no more frosts are to be expected, preferably after mid-March. Take care to cut back only the leafy part of the plant.

Steppe Sage, a pretty perennial for the flower bed, should be cut back to a third of the shoot length after the first main flowering in late summer, then water well and add a little blue grain. If the steppe sage is cut back in this way, it is highly likely to produce new flowers again by early autumn. Experts call this ability “reassembling”. In early spring a further pruning is done before the plant sprouts again. If the plant is divided every three years, this keeps the perennials vital and flowering

Clary sage sprouts vigorously in spring and does not need to be cut back The plants should only be fertilized sparingly in spring with a low-nitrogen flowering plant fertilizer.

Hibernation or winter protection

The evergreen Sage can be severely damaged by winter frosts in harsh locations. As a precaution, the root area should therefore be mulched thickly with leaves in cold winters and the crown covered with a light-coloured synthetic fleece. As with most Mediterranean herbs, a rather meagre, very permeable soil is advantageous for winter hardiness.

Non-hardy sage species should be dug up before the first frost and the flower shoots cut back. Place the plants in containers with earthy substrate and overwinter them in the greenhouse.


Flowering sage is a decoration for every vegetable and herb garden and is well suited for perennial and steppe beds. Yarrow, half-height grasses or even roses are suitable partners. The flowers are popular as bee pasture and are also interesting for other insects. The heat-loving real sage is mainly used in herb gardens and also feels comfortable in a herb spiral. However, there are also leaf-ornamental varieties such as ‘Purpurascens’, ‘Icterina’ and ‘Tricolor’, which can be easily integrated into sunny perennial beds, rock gardens and prairie gardens. As a medicinal plant, real sage helps with numerous ailments.

Important species and varieties

As a perennial half-shrub with aromatic leaves, real sage (photo above) is one of the most important medicinal and spice plants. To preserve the aroma of the leaves after harvesting the sage, the sage can be dried. Alternatively, it is also possible to freeze the sage. The variety ‘Purpurascens’, also known as purple sage or purple-spice sage, is characterised by its dark purple leaves and green shimmer. Silver-leaved sage (Salvia argentea) has a similar growth to Salvia officinalis. It has ovoid and silvery, fluffy leaves and white inflorescences. It is native to the western Mediterranean and North Africa

The steppe or grove sage is the best known species for the garden bed. It is originally at home in eastern Central Europe and Southwest Asia and is a grateful garden perennial with a long flowering period. There are many varieties of Steppe Sage: the blue flowering variety ‘Blauhügel’, the purple-blue ‘Ostfriesland’, the pink variety ‘Amethyst’ and the white-flowering variety ‘Schneehügel’ are classics. The height of all of them is about 50 centimetres. The ‘Berggarten’ variety stands out for its compact growth and broad leaves. While ‘Alba’ produces white flowers, ‘Rosea’ has pink flowers

The meadow sage (Salvia pratensis) is native to our region, while the whorl-flowered sage (Salvia verticilliata) is gaining ground in Eastern Europe. Both grow on dry grasslands and on the edges of fields. They like calcareous, nutrient-poor soils and are also suitable for garden cultivation

The impressive muscatel sage is biennial. In the first year, it forms only a basal leaf rosette with large, stalked, grey-haired leaves, and in the second year an inflorescence about one metre high. The numerous pink-white labiates in high panicle-like inflorescences appear in July/August. The plant likes to sow its own seeds in a suitable location and spreads a slightly obtrusive smell. Piedmont’ is an old variety of clary sage with purple bracts.

The essential oils of the plant have a similar effect to those of real sage. The sage species is suitable for bouquets, herb bags and for making wine, jams and fruit desserts red.

The pineapple sage (Salbia elegans Scarlet pineapple’) is a non-hardy small shrub that grows up to 90 centimetres high and 60 centimetres wide. It is characterised by striking, elongated, tubular, red flowers that appear in midsummer. The pointed, oval, green leaves are reddish-brown at the edges and smell of pineapple when rubbed.

The crested sage (Salvia viridis) is annual. Its main decoration is not the actual flowers, but the long-lasting, pink or purple coloured bracts on the inflorescences

The currant sage (Salvia microphylla var. Microphylla) is a non-hardy, evergreen shrub. It grows up to 120 centimetres high and wide. Its pretty, raspberry-red flowers appear from late summer to early autumn. The oval, medium green leaves smell of blackcurrants when rubbed. The likewise non-hardy flour sage (Salvia farinacea) captivates with months of continuous flowering in bright blue.


The perennially growing steppe sage can be propagated in spring by cutting or dividing the plants. The annual and biennial species are propagated by sowing in April. They often sow themselves – like the Muscat Sage, for example. From June onwards, the true sage can be easily propagated by means of cuttings multiply.

Diseases and pests

Ornamental sage is robust and is hardly attacked by pests. Occasionally powdery mildew occurs on the steppe sage – especially when it is too close together in the bed. Muscatel and silver leaf sage are often attacked by snails haunted. The plants should therefore be protected, especially in spring when they are budding.

Frequently asked questions

When can you plant sage?

In principle, sage can be planted from spring to autumn. Spring planting is usually preferred.

How often should sage be watered?

Sage should be watered only moderately so that the water does not accumulate. In the case of Steppe Sage, which prefers fresh soil, you should ensure that there is sufficient watering, especially in dry conditions.

When can sage be harvested?

The leaves of real sage can be harvested all year round.

When do you have to cut sage?

The cutting dates can vary depending on the species. Genuine sage is cut back every year in spring – as soon as there is no more threat of frost. The shoots of steppe sage are only cut back by a third after the main flowering in late summer

What is sage good for?

Sage is a great medicinal plant for every herb and vegetable garden and a real eye-catcher in steppe or perennial beds. Especially for sore throats or gastrointestinal problems, real sage has proven to be very soothing. The flowers are a popular food source for many insects, such as bees

Can sage still be harvested when it is in bloom?

Yes, you can still harvest sage when it is in bloom! Even the flowers are edible

Don Burke

I am Don Burke, one of the authors at My Garden Guide.  I am a horticulturist that cultivates, grows, and cares for plants, ranging from shrubs and fruits to flowers. I do it in my own garden and in my nursery. I show you how to take care of your garden and how to perform garden landscaping in an easy way, step by step.I am originally from Sydney and I wrote in local magazines. Later on, I have decided, more than two decades ago, to create my own blog. My area of specialization is related to orchid care, succulent care, and the study of the substrate and the soil. Therefore, you will see many articles dedicated to these disciplines. I also provide advice about how to improve the landscape design of your garden.

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