Salvia officinalis



Salvia officinalis

L. 1753

pronounced: SAL-vee-un off-ick-in-AH-liss

(Lamiaceae — the lavender family)


common name: sage

Salvia is the Roman name for the herb, probably from salveo, to be well, in good health; officinalis is from the Latin officina, a workshop. The Latin word officina was adopted in Christian times as the name of the monastic storeroom where medicines and herbs were kept.

A native of the Mediterranean region, sage is now naturalized in many places throughout the world. It has a long history of medicinal and culinary use. The common name ‘sage’ is also used for a number of other related and unrelated plants.

Salvia officinalis was described by Linnaeus in 1753. It has been grown since ancient times in the Old World for its food-flavouring and healing properties. In the old herbals there were many miraculous properties ascribed it: it warded off evil, cured people bitten by snakes, increased women’s fertility, and more. The Romans probably introduced it into Europe from Egypt. Theophrastus (c.371–c.287 BC) wrote about 2 different sages, a wild undershrub he called σφακος (sphakos), which may have been Salvia officinalis, although some antiquarians think it was probably Salvia calycina; the second he called ελελισφακος (elelisphakos), and this was probably Salvia fruticosa, Greek sage. Pliny the Elder (23–79 AD) wrote that the latter plant was called Salvia by the Romans and used as a diuretic, a local anaesthetic for the skin, and a styptic, as well as for other purposes. Charlemagne recommended the plant for cultivation in the early Middle Ages, and it was cultivated in monastery gardens. Sometimes called Salvia salvatrix (Sage the Saviour) in the Middle Ages, it was one of the ingredients of ‘Four Thieves Vinegar’. During the dreadful years of the Black Death, four robbers were convicted of going into the houses of plague victims, strangling them in their beds, and looting their houses. They claimed that the reason they themselves had escaped the plague was by dosing themselves with their secret preservative. They tried to escape with a lighter sentence by revealing the recipe, but it was to no avail – they were hanged.

In 3 pints of white wine vinegar, mix the following:

a handful each of wormwood, meadowsweet, juniper berries, wild marjoram and sage.
Add 50 cloves, 2 ounces each of elecampane root, angelica, rosemary and horehound, with a pinch of camphor.

Steep the plants in the vinegar for 10 days, force through a sieve, and then filter. The ‘Four Thieves Vinegar’ should be rubbed into the skin of the face and hands. Some should also be carried in a small bottle so that its vapour can be inhaled.

Sage is a variable evergreen perennial shrub with a strong taproot and square woody branching stems, growing up to about 75 cm tall. It is grey and woolly when young. The leaves are grey-green and soft, with a pebbly texture, oblong or lanceolate, and finely toothed. Whorls of violet-blue flowers appear in spikes in the summer. In the Mediterranean countries it is commonly found growing wild on hillsides and grassland on chalk soils.
It is a popular herb, especially for stuffing chickens, when it is usually combined with onion. Sage tea is made from the leaves, and drunk to combat sweating.

Larvae of the Twig Looper Ectropis excursaria and the Light Brown Apple Moth Epiphyas postvittana feed on the plant.


Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.


Photograph taken at Picnic Bay 2010
Page last updated 29th March 2019