Salvia is the largest genus of plants in the mint family, Lamiaceae, with approximately 900 species of shrubs, herbaceous perennials, and annuals. It is one of three general commonly referred to as sage.
When used without modifiers, sage generally refers to Salvia officinalis ("common sage"); however, it can be used with modifiers to refer to any member of the genus.
The ornamental species are commonly referred to by their scientific name Salvia. The genus is distributed throughout the world, with the center of diversity and origin appearing to be Central and South Western Asia while nearly 500 species are native to Mexico and Central and South America. The classification of different Salvia species has been very confusing over the years. Many species are similar to each other, and many species have varieties that have been given different specific names. Salvia officinalis, for example, has been described and named under six other specific names at various times. At one time there were over 2000 named Salvia species. That number has been reduced in recent years to 700-900 distinct species and subspecies, depending on the source.
It is a small perennial evergreen subshrub, with woody stems, grayish leaves, and different species have differently colored flowers, red, blue, yellow, white etc. It is native to the Mediterranean region and commonly grown as a kitchen and medicinal herb or as an ornamental garden plant.
Common sage is also grown in parts of Europe, especially the Balkans for distillation of an essential oil, though other species, such as Salvia fruticosa may also be harvested and distilled with it. Many salvias have hairs growing on the leaves, stems, and flowers, which help to reduce water loss in some species. Sometimes the hairs are glandular and secrete volatile oils that typically give a distinct aroma to the plant. When the hairs are rubbed or brushed, some of the oil-bearing cells are ruptured, releasing the oil. This often results in the plant being unattractive to grazing animals and some insects, although it is used as food by butterflies and moths.
The defining characteristic of the genus Salvia is the unusual pollination mechanism, which consists of two stamens (instead of the typical four found in other members of the tribe Mentheae) and the way the two stamens are connected to form a lever. When a pollinator enters the flower for nectar, the lever activates causing the stamens to move and the pollen to be deposited on the pollinator. When the pollinator withdraws from the flower, the lever returns the stamens to their original position. As the pollinator enters another flower of the same species, the stigma is placed in a general location that corresponds to where the pollen was deposited on the pollinator's body. It is believed that this is a key factor in the speciation of this large group of diverse plants.
As an herb, sage has a slight peppery flavor. In Western cooking, it is used for flavoring fatty meats (especially as a marinade), cheeses (Sage Derby), and some drinks. In the United States, Britain and Flanders, sage is used with onion for poultry or pork stuffing and also in sauces. In French cuisine, sage is used for cooking white meat and in vegetable soups. Germans often use it in sausage dishes, and sage forms the dominant flavoring in the English Lincolnshire sausage. Sage is also common in Italian cooking, it is sautéed in olive oil and butter until crisp, then plain or stuffed pasta is added (burro e salvia). In the Balkans and the Middle East, it is used when roasting mutton.
The name is derived from the Latin salvere ("to save"), referring to the long-believed healing properties of salvia. The Latin was corrupted to 'sauja', to the French 'sauge', and to the old English 'sawge', and eventually became the modern day “sage”. Although the effectiveness of Common Sage is open to debate, it has been recommended at one time or another for virtually every aliment. Modern evidence supports its effects as an anhidrotic, antibiotic, antifungal, astringent, antispasmodic, estrogenic, hypoglycemic, and tonic. In a double blind, randomized and placebo-controlled trial, sage was found to be effective in the management of mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease.
As well as it's culinary uses, Salvia officinalis has been used since ancient times for warding off evil, snakebites, increasing women's fertility, and more. The Romans likely introduced it to Europe from Egypt, and used it as a diuretic, a local anesthetic for the skin, a styptic, and for other uses. During the Carolingian Empire of the early Middle Ages, monastery gardens were cultivating the plant. The plant had a high reputation throughout the Middle Ages, with many sayings referring to its healing properties and value. It was sometimes called S. salvatrix (Sage the Savior), and was one of the ingredients of Four Thieves Vinegar, a blend of herbs which was supposed to ward off the plague. Of the many other types of sage, Salvia miltiorrhiza (red sage) is used in Traditional Chinese medicine; Salvia splendens or "Scarlet sage" is a popular ornamental bedding or pot plant; Salvia apiana is the "whitesage" used in smudge sticks in many U.S. Native American traditions, sweat lodges, purification rituals, etc., and last but not least Salvia divinorum, or "Diviner's sage", is possibly the mosts potent psychedelic plant when ingested as smoke or tea; its legality is pending in some US states.
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