Salvia officinalis (sage, also called garden sage, common sage, or culinary sage) is a perennial, evergreen subshrub, with woody stems, grayish leaves, and blue to purplish flowers. It is a member of the mint family Lamiaceae and native to the Mediterranean region, though it has been naturalized in many places throughout the world. It has a long history of medicinal and culinary use, and in modern times it has been used as an ornamental garden plant. The common name “sage” is also used for a number of related and unrelated species.
Cultivars are quite variable in size, leaf and flower color, and foliage pattern, with many variegated leaf types. The Old World type grows to approximately 60 cm (2 ft) tall and wide, with lavender flowers most common, though they can also be white, pink, or purple. The plant flowers in late spring or summer. The leaves are oblong, ranging in size up to 65 mm (2 1⁄2 in) long by 25 mm (1 in) wide. Leaves are grey-green, rugose on the upper side, and nearly white underneath due to the many short soft hairs. Modern cultivars include leaves with purple, rose, cream, and yellow in many variegated combinations.
In Britain, sage has for generations been listed as one of the essential herbs, along with parsley, rosemary, and thyme (as in the folk song “Scarborough Fair”). It has a savory, slightly peppery flavor. Sage appears in the 14th and 15th centuries in a “Cold Sage Sauce”, known in French, English and Lombard cuisine, probably traceable to its appearance in Le Viandier de Taillevent. It appears in many European cuisines, notably Italian, Balkan and Middle Eastern cookery. In Italian cuisine, it is an essential condiment for saltimbocca and other dishes, favored with fish. In British and American cooking, it is traditionally served as sage and onion stuffing, an accompaniment to roast turkey or chicken at Christmas or Thanksgiving Day, and for Sunday roast dinners. Other dishes include pork casserole, Sage Derby cheese and Lincolnshire sausages. Despite the common use of traditional and available herbs in French cuisine, sage never found favor there.
In the Levant and Egypt it is commonly used as a flavor for hot black tea, or boiled and served as an herbal drink in its own right.
Common sage is grown in parts of Europe for distillation of an essential oil, although other species such as Salvia fruticosa may also be harvested and distilled with it. The essential oil contains cineole, borneol, and thujone. Sage leaf contains tannic acid, oleic acid, ursolic acid, carnosol, carnosic acid, fumaric acid, chlorogenic acid, caffeic acid, niacin, nicotinamide, flavones, flavonoid glycosides, and estrogenic substances.
Some research has suggested certain extracts of Salvia officinalis and S. lavandulaefolia may have positive effects on human brain function, improving memory and attention in the young, old and those with Alzheimer’s Disease. These results have been seen laboratory research and in controlled clinical trials. The thujone present in Salvia extracts may be neurotoxic.
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