Red, White, or Common: Which Sage Do You Use?

Sage comes in a variety of colors, shapes, and sizes. Folks familiar with European cuisines are familiar with common Sage, aka Culinary Sage or Salvia officinalis. When Traditional Western Herbalists or modern herbalists speak of Sage, this is most often the species they’re talking about. Leaves and flowers of S. officinalis been used in cooking and medicine for centuries. In North America Tribal Elders and Medicine People, however, are more likely be referring to White Sage, aka S. apiana, when they talk about sage…especially if they’re referring to ceremonial use or smudging with dried Sage leaves and twigs. Acupuncturists and Traditional Chinese Herbalists favor Red Sage or Dan Shen, aka S. miltiorrhiza, for medicinal use–and they’re almost universally talking about using the root. Clary Sage, S. sclarea, is favored among essential oil companies and aromatherapists for its calming and strengthening volatile oils.

That’s just the most popular selection of Sages among modern herbalists. With so many colors and species to choose from, how do you know which to try?

Red, White, Clary or Common: Which Sage to Use

Salvia officinalis, or Common Sage, is a good choice for most uses. If you’re looking for simple first-aid remedies, like fighting off a cold or flu or making a quick wash or poltice to manage a wound or rash, S. officinalis will do the job well. Common Sage is also a terrific choice for infusions designed to help balance hormones, calm the spirit or mind, and for general good health.

Red Sage or Dan Shen, aka S. miltiorrhiza, is the best choice if you’re looking for a blood-moving remedy that won’t overexcite the system. Look for Dan Shen root from reputable growers or commit to growing your own organically. TCM practitioners commonly include Dan Shen in formulas designed to release heart heat and calm the mind (Shen).

White Sage, or S. apiana, would be a good choice for ceremonial use, except that environmental factors, commercial demand, and improper harvest of this sacred herb have threatened wild stands in its native habitat. According to Christina Sanchez of Every Leaf Speaks, White Sage has suffered from a combination of fire, drought, and over harvest. “If you really want to care for this herb, grow her yourself or buy only from farmers who can prove they are only selling white sage they’ve grown themselves,” she said. Unethical sellers may claim to have ethically wildcrafted or even grown white sage themselves when they have not, so it pays to do your research and talk to Herbalists you trust to have the plant’s best interests at heart before you buy. Better yet, substitute Common Sage for White Sage in your hand-made smudge bundles or incense blends.

Clary Sage or S. sclaria, makes a lovely companion plant to your other Mediterranean herbs and plants. Most herbalists use the flowers for flower essence and use the leaves or essential oil topically for a variety of complaints. The flavor of Clary Sage is considerably stronger and more likely to lean into too-bitter than Common Sage, so Clary Sage is rarely used in cooking or internal herbal remedies.

Growing Sage

Sages of all sorts prefer warmer and more temperate conditions. Common Sage is native to the Mediterranean climate, so hot and dry with mild winters. Red Sage is native to China, where it grows wild from low to higher elevations. Red Sage is more cold-hardy than is Common Sage. White sage is the most finicky of the lot, preferring hot, dry conditions with warm winters. Common sage and Red sage can withstand colder winters, if need be. They will lose their leaves when temperatures edge beyond freezing, but if mulched in well their roots can potentially handle long, frozen winters. Most cold-climate folks, however, will do better to plant their favorite sage as an annual, bring it indoors for winter, or protect it in a greenhouse.

Sages of most types grow into small bushes, ranging in height from around two feet (.6 m) to as much as 5 feet (1.5). Most have ovate shaped leaves with a slightly fuzzy or soft texture. The aroma of Sages is strong and distinctive, no matter which variety you’re smelling. Just a little Sage goes a long way, according to Maria Noel Groves. Although she was referring specifically to Common Sage, it’s wise to apply that tip to all Sages as you experiment.

Common Sage in the Garden

It grows in temperate climate gardens year-round, with most new growth in the spring, summer, and fall and retaining it’s leaves through winter. It likes full sun to partial shade with fair soil and somewhat dry conditions. Folks in colder climates can grow Common Sage in a pot, overwintering it inside or in the greenhouse, or as an annual…although in one of my sheltered Minnesota garden beds S. officinalis grew happily for five years with a tuck-in of six inches of leaf mulch in fall despite a couple of rather chilly winters. Desert Dwellers and folks in hot Tropical regions can also grow S. officinalis, taking care to not let it overtake the bed and watching for powdery mildew if the weather turns damp.

Dan Shen in the Garden

In your home garden, plan to devote a year or two to Dan Shen before harvesting the root. Second-year roots are reputed to offer stronger medicine than first-year roots, although a lot of that depends on your garden conditions. Look for the distinctive Red coloring to your Dan Shen roots; More red in Dan Shen Root means more potent medicine. Dan Shen, like Common Sage, likes a temperate climate and keeps its leaves through winter when temperatures don’t get too low. Grow Dan Shen in easy-to-dig conditions, like in a raised bed or berm, if you plan to harvest the root. The long, red taproot of Dan Shen will burrow deep and far into the soil, much like burdock root. The time you spend planning ahead will save you a lot of work later, when it’s time to dig up the roots.

White Sage in the Garden

White Sage is reputed to be hard to grow outside of its native California habitat. Folks who live in the dry, hot conditions S. apiana loves can grow it in their gardens. White sage loves full sun, desert heat, and low humidity. A few sellers, like Strictly Medicinal Seeds, offer both White Sage seeds and potted plants. Be sure if you’re buying White Sage for your garden your seed or plant source truly is reputable and has, indeed, grown and harvested the seeds and starts from domesticated gardens rather than from the wild.

Clary Sage in the Garden

Clary Sage or S. sclaria, makes a lovely garden plant, to be sure. Like it’s cousins, Clary Sage prefers warm, temperate to hot conditions with well-drained soil. Clary Sage is quite intolerant of damp conditions, much like White Sage. Folks in damp areas, like the Pacific Northwest, may want to consider growing it as an annual or in a pot where it can be moved to less damp conditions for the rainy season. Herbalists love Clary Sage as a garden protector and for cut flower arrangements, but rarely use it as herbal medicine unless it has been distilled into essential oil.

Herbal Nerd Society Members, Look for more articles on Sage as Herbal Medicine this month, including Sage Herbal Energetics.


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