Garden sage (Salvia officinalis) was one of the first useful plants I added to my first garden; my goal was to grow enough that I could use it fresh for Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing. Fifteen years later, I’m on my third garden, and though it is brand new this autumn, it already includes several sage plants (which recently contributed to a delicious Thanksgiving dinner).
In Minnesota, where I gardened previously, garden sage makes a nice pathside plant. It forms a fairly compact upright mound with a silvery color and interesting bumpy-textured leaves. Brushing against the soft foliage releases a pleasant aroma. Sited well, it may achieve a height of 12 to 18 inches and a spread of up to two feet, and it may return for several years before dying out permanently. I have always thought of it as a short-lived perennial, even though it is technically a sub-shrub.
My perceptions were radically altered when I started my Boise garden and my sister offered me a couple of 5-year-old garden sage plants for it. The two of them filled the bed of my husband’s truck. The largest is as wide as I am tall! I’m here to testify that garden sage is definitely a shrub. And furthermore, it’s going to be one of my new garden’s signature plants.
I love the idea of signature plants. They are plants that occur throughout a garden, giving a characteristic look, and they are a great way to endow a garden with a strong sense of place. Apparently the repetition of a signature plant or group can lend a reassuring familiarity to a garden, so as people stroll through, they are subconsciously soothed. (“You are not lost; you are still in my garden.”)
My sages, when they grow into shrubs, will tie in to the similar-looking but not-closely-related sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) and other shrubs dotting the nearby foothills. They will not only give my garden a distinctive character, but will ensure that its character echoes that of its local natural landscape.
I’m not sure if it was the experience of growing up with that high desert landscape, but I do have an affinity for garden sage. Not just its soft, silvery leaves, with their friendly rounded oblong shapes so much like the ears of puppies (and giraffes, and alpacas!). Not just its aroma, warm and dusty and a bit sharp. I have always liked its flavor, with that menthol undertone that dissipates any greasiness in a meal (my turkey and stuffing deliver a lot of butter). It’s a great wildlife plant that will bring hummingbirds and bees and supply cover to the quail that roam through my new property. It’s also being studied for its ability to mitigate mild Alzheimer’s and dementia, so maybe there is something behind its historical powers to bestow wisdom.
Garden sage is fairly adaptable, a good trait for a signature plant, as it can inhabit different areas of the garden despite variations in sunlight, moisture, and wind exposure. Plus—and this is KEY—I think I can keep it healthy. It’s not too demanding, which is a perfect match for my hands-off gardening style. The main thing will be to site it correctly, keeping its roots from being waterlogged by avoiding clay pockets and low spots where rain or melting snow might pool in winter.
Years ago, I read a somewhat mystical text on how to experience plants with your heart rather than your analytical mind. It advised choosing plants with which you sense a special affinity and sitting with them, training your awareness on them in order to receive more information about their special qualities.
I like to think that meditating on any plant (or indeed, any rock or seed or shell or lichen) might help a person to sense nature in this deeper way. Maybe the place to start is with a few appealing and well-adapted signature plants. Maybe my garden sages—like the sages of old—will teach me some things about this new environment as I put down roots here.