Garden Sage: One of my Signature Plants


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.

Yes, that is one magnificent sage specimen behind me (thanks, Sis!), giving my new garden a head start on structure.

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.

Shrub-dominated high desert landscape bordering the Boise area.

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.

Such friendly looking ears they have, reminiscent of garden sage leaves.

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.

One-year-old garden sage plants make low hedges around the beds in this edible garden in Minnesota.

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.


  1. I like the idea of signature plants, a term you taught me when you identified one of them in my former gardener – the Carex ‘Ice Dance.’ I brought enough with me when I moved that it serves that same purpose here. THough I’m incorporating more and more Salvias, too.
    About this one, since it’s short-lived, do you introduce a couple of new ones each year to keep the supply going?

    • Susan, I remember your gorgeous Ice Dance sedges — such a great choice for a signature plant.

      With the sages, I am not sure how long they live here in this climate. They do self-sow (unheard of in Minnesota), so it’s possible I can get by with periodically moving some of the seedlings around. I will wait for the garden to unfold and will respond to whatever happens.

  2. The alpacas are adorable!

    I’ve had a Berggarten sage for about 10 years. I propagated it (to free up some space in the sunnier part of the garden) and it’s been a well-behaved mound in the part-shade area, too. I don’t use it as much as I intend to. Sage tea is supposed to be a great remedy for throat stuff, but I find that the more time I spend in the garden, the less likely I am to get sick. I stay healthy when everyone around me is sick!

    My favorite sage is Cleveland sage, a native. It has the most intoxicating aroma. I’d grow it myself if I had a place for it, but since I don’t, I appreciate it all the more in other gardens.

    • Love all those aromatics in tea: sage, mint, lemon balm, oregano & thyme, even mullein. I like to wander through the garden and pick assorted leaves (or petals or whatever), then make my tea.

      • Watch out for lemon balm, it can be invasive. While you can contain mint by keeping in a pot (I have them in a bed bounded by a basement stairway and brick path), lemon balm will spread seeds all over the garden. The oregano and parsley also tend to wander about the garden, but I don’t mind it so much because we often use them in cooking.

        Though I am speaking from experience in a maritime climate a whole state and several mountains west of you. So your mileage may vary.

        I had issues with thyme. Sure it grows well, but I used it so much that I kept killing my plants. So I bought an entire flat of thyme plants, put them all over my garden (including parts of the rockery), and have not killed one in over two years.

        By the way, rosemary grows into extremely large shrubs, and bay laurel is a huge tree. Mine is twenty feet tall, with grape vines going through it just like what happened in Rome (from A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage).

        Yay herbs! I am going to be starting my indoor basil plants soon. I say that because I meant to start them in September. Oops.

        • Yay herbs is right!

          How fun that you have a bay laurel tree. I have a little rosemary in a pot that I’ll be planting outdoors next spring. It may survive a few winters in a sheltered microclimate, if I’m lucky. I was going to hunt down the prostrate kind as I think it’s hardier.

          Thyme is one of my favorites too – it is so good with any bean dish. Got to plant it all over the place.

          If I can get the sunset hyssop to survive, I bet that will make great tea. It smells kind of like root beer and mint mixed.

          • If you ever take a trip to Seattle, be sure to go the University of Washington campus. Just the south of the big fountain, and to the east of the large lawn known as “Rainier Vista” is the Medicinal Herb Garden:

            There is an entire hedge of rosemary, and of Camellia sinensis, the type of camellia that makes tea.

  3. Evelyn, I’m zone 7-ish here in Oregon (although we just had a brutal stretch of single-digit weather), and I have 2 salvia officianalis plants that have over-wintered and flourished for several years now. One of them is in a pot, but I never bring it inside.

    I had a Pineapple Melon sage that survived for 2 seasons, then sadly went belly-up. I think sage is a borderline perrenial around here.

    • Sad to hear you lost the pineapple melon sage; that sounds yummy. Salvia elegans? Looks like it is much less hardy than officinalis, but where it is perennial, it can become a huge shrub!

  4. Two of my sage plants have been going strong for over a dozen years in our maritime climate near Puget Sound. One is the Salvia officinaliss, and another is dwarf variety. I have to shear them every so often to keep them from getting woody or leggy.

    There is now a volunteer from the officinaliss growing nearby in the rockery.

    Sadly, during our cold snap the other week, both the melon and pineapple sages died. They had just bloomed with beautiful hummingbird enticing red flowers, which I included in my Thanksgiving centerpiece. I’ll get replacements at the next Master’s Gardener sale in a few months.

    Recently I have been making the brown butter and sage pasta from the
    The Herbfarm Cookbook
    by Jerry Traunfeld. Here is one recipe I found for it online:

  5. Lovely post! Looking forward to growing some sage in my new herb garden, sheltered on the east side of this chilly zone 4.

  6. Such a fun article, Evelyn! Great mental and pictorial images of scale and texture. Loved the heart-centered sage advice at the end. Meditation in any firm is healthy to body and spirit!

    Pineapple sage was the first plant I recognized as a “herb” when I was 8 or 9 years old and joined the Herb Society of America at age 16! As a landscape architect, I always infuse herbs in garden designs and share with clients how to brew or use them. 22 years later, in Atlanta’s Garden Hills, see a proliferation of upright rosemary along the sidewalks of my neighborhood … A trend I hope continues. Rub it in your palm while walking and it takes you into a new zone.

    • Mary, I totally agree about rosemary. It’s iffy here, but I do have a little “tree” of it indoors this winter, awaiting a summer home out in the new courtyard garden. I LOVE having it in my dining room. And cooking with it infuses the house with a really tangy, lively smell that sure helps with the winter blues.

      All this talk about pineapple sage… I’m going to have to get some and see what all the fuss is about!

  7. Love your post!

    Sages/salvias are my favorites too. I am mad about them. The ornamental as well as the culinary. They grow so well in my area. I have salvia apiana, aurea kirstenboch, bee’s bliss, brandegii, canariensis, clevelandii (lost track of which ones), chamaedryoides, discolor, gregii (red), guaranitica, macrophylla (recumbent), mellifera, microphylla (bright pink), microphylla hot lips, oficinalis, pachyphylla (just planted!), radula, savannah blue, sclarea, waverly. I use s. chamaedryoides in numerous places as it has a lovely bright blue color and is bullet proof in my area. Alas, some varieties that I have had need to be replaced i.e. spathacea, lanceolata and argentea.

  8. BooksInGarden, you sound like the ultimate salviaphile! (Is that a word?) Guessing you must be in a warm zone, or do you grow some of them as annuals?

    I am really excited that I may be able to grow some of the pretty floriferous ones now, as perennials. Can’t wait for spring!

  9. Count me in with the Crazy About Salvia crowd! I am a maniac when it comes to this herb, and all of my clients have culinary, ornamental, and native sages in abundance!
    I love your passage about meditating on a plant – and if people are going to give it a whirl, a member of the salvia family will make a wonderful “Plant-Spirit” Guide. There is so much sage has to give us, teach us, share with us, show us… many of us burn sage regularly for cleansing and visionary practices, and it is always a gentle friend and tutor.
    Thanks for this lovely post! I am honoring my sage on this holiday – it has perfumed my rooms, my garden, and my food for weeks now. How lovely to share that honor of this plant with you!

  10. BTW – LOVE the image of the high desert landscape around Boise! When I was there, I was startled to see how similar it is to the chaparral in SoCal.

    • Yes, I was echoing your earlier post showing your nearby native landscape. Seems we rarely see images of the native landscapes in different parts of the world, and yet to me, those landscapes can offer a lot of information about how to make a garden that fits the site.

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