Salvia offers variety of culinary treats | Sowin 'n' the trowel

I attempted to show someone a very attractive plant recently and as soon as the word Salvia came out of my mouth, she said, “Oh, I know Salvia.” Then with a wave of her hand she moved on, as if to add, “If you’ve seen one Salvia, you’ve seen them all.”

I suppose if you had a lot of time on your hands – and I do mean a lot – you could know everything there is to know about Salvia. For the rest of us, I reckon, there’s always something more to learn.

For example, the name Salvia doesn’t just refer to a group of showy ornamental plants, but to a whole genus of approximately 700-900 plants that contains annuals, shrubs and herbaceous perennials. In fact, it’s the largest genus in the Lamiaceae, or mint, family.

With that kind of lineage, it’s no surprise Saliva isn’t just a pretty face. A great many are aromatic as well as edible. These salvias are commonly known as sages.

One exception should be noted here. Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) is also a member of the mint family, but it is not a true sage and is not edible. It’s still a long-blooming standout in the garden and creates interest with its pale stems, even during the bleak winter months. But a Salvia? Never.

On the other hand, common garden sage (Salvia officinalis), a native of the Mediterranean region, has been cultivated for thousands of years solely for culinary purposes. The foliage of its many cultivars comes in every shade of green, to purple and golden -- even variegated. You can use both the leaves and the flowers fresh or dried in cooking, or just sit back and enjoy the show when it blooms.

If you grow lavender, you already know how to care for your culinary sages. Give them good drainage and full sun, and don’t forget to cut them back hard so they don’t get leggy and woody. You can do this at the same time you harvest the leaves and flowers in the summer, or after they’re done blooming in the fall.

The ornamental salvias cultivated from plants that evolved here in the Americas are like willowy Latin American super models compared to their farm-bred European culinary cousins. I’m thinking of the bright pink flowered Salvia lemmonii (also known as Salvia microphylla var. wislizeni) and the luscious white and red flowered Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips,’ But like culinary sages, prune perennial salvias back hard in the fall and you’ll be rewarded with a sturdier and fuller plant in the spring.

And don’t forget Salvia elegans, the sometimes tender tangerine and pineapple sages. Bruise their leaves and the fruity notes immediately transport you to a tropical paradise – even when it’s dreary and dismal outside.

There’s yet another Salvia that’s been gaining notoriety lately here in the US. That’s Salvia divinorum, a plant endemic to the cloud forests of Oaxaca in Mexico. It’s been used for generations by indigenous people there to bring about visions and an altered state of consciousness.

I used to use something quite different to accomplish the same euphoric feelings.

That is until Hostess went out of business.


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