Sages (Salvia)

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Economic Plant Photographs #38

Sages of the genus Salvia

Mint Family (Lamiaceae)

One of the most interesting genera of shrubs in the mint family (Lamiaceae) is Salvia. In California, the genus includes 17 species of native herbs and shrubs called sages, not to be confused with the North American sagebrush (Artemisia) of the sunflower family (Asteraceae). Worldwide, there are over 700 species in the genus Salvia, including the garden sage (S. officinalis) native to Europe and Asia Minor. The latter species has been used in medicines from classical Greek times through the Middle Ages. To this day, the dried leaves are a popular cooking herb in the United States. Although quite pungent, some of the native California sages are also used as an herb. Volatile essential oils responsible for the pungent odor of sages include several monoterpenes (pinene, salvene and camphor) and some phenolic compounds. Terpenes present in the resinous foliage and fallen leaves of wild sages inhibit the germination of nearby wildflower seeds, a phenomenon known as allelopathy. This explains the abundance of wildflowers in recently burned coastal sage scrub and chaparral. As a cooking herb, Salvia officinalis is often used in turkey "stuffing" at Thanksgiving time and also in processed lunch meats and sausages. Some California sages, such white sage (S. apiana) have been used as incense, and the dried leaves of Cleveland sage (S. clevelandii) make a fragrant potpourri and sachet.

Although the genus Salvia is placed in the mint family (Lamiaceae), it is listed under Labiatae in older references. The family is typically characterized by flowers with bilabiate (2-lipped corollas), aromatic (mint-like) foliage, opposite leaves and square stems. The flowers typically occur in dense clusters (glomerules) along the main stem axis. By contrast, the sagebrushes (Artemisia) have small, rayless heads typical of the sunflower family (Asteraceae).

A European Sagebrush Called Absinthe


Garden sage (Salvia officinalis) is a colorful European shrub that has been cultivated for centuries. The generic name is derived from the Latin word "salvere" (to heal). Since the Middle Ages, people have been aware of the medicinal qualities of its aromatic leaves. Sage leaves are used to flavor vinegar and as a culinary herb which reportedly aids digestion. Other medicinal virtues include a potent astringent and antiseptic for mouth infections and bleeding gums, and for the treatment of various gastrointestinal disorders.

Canary Islands

Canary Island sage (Salvia canariensis), endemic to the Canary Islands off the nortwest coast of Africa.

Mexican Sages

Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha), a common cultivated shrub in southern California.

Autumn sage (Salvia greggii), a cultivated sage in southern California.

Santa Rosa Island & N. Baja California

Salvia brandegei endemic to Santa Rosa Island & N. Baja California

Central American Sages

Left: Salvia gesneriiflora (Mex. to Colombia). Right: S. dorsiana (Honduras).

Salvia wagneriana native to Guatemala and Costa Rica.

South American Sages

Salvia discolor native to Peru.

South African Sages

Salvia dolomitica native to South Africa.

California Sages

Cleveland Sage (Salvia clevelandii)

Flowering branch and beautiful blue flowers of Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii), an endemic species in chaparral and coastal sage scrub areas of San Diego County and northern Baja California. It is also called fragrant sage and the leaves have been used for potpourri and sachet.

One compact flower cluster (glomerule) of Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii).

Black Sage (Salvia mellifera)

Coastal sage scrub plant community north of Owens Peak (northeast of Palomar College). The vegetation is dominated by black sage (Salvia mellifera) in foreground (left) and California sagebrush (Artemisia californica).

One compact flower cluster (glomerule) of black sage (Salvia mellifera).

Sage Hybrids: Salvia mellifera x S. apiana

Hybridization among sages in coastal San Diego County. A. Black sage (Salvia mellifera), B. Hybrid sage (S. mellifera x S. apiana), and C. White sage (S. apiana). Although the specimens have finished blooming, the intermediate hybrid (B) is easy to distinguish from its progentors. The leaves of the hybrid are gray-green, similar in color to the leaves of white sage (C); the hybrid leaves are also much lighter than the dark green leaves of black sage (A). In addition, the underside of the hybrid leaves are more prominently veined and rugose like black sage (A). The inflorescence of the hybrid is similar to white sage (C), without the interrupted series of dense, spherical flower clusters (glomerules) of black sage. Another hybrid S. x palmeri is intermediate between its progenitors S. apiana and S. clevelandii.

Chia (Salvia columbariae)

Chia (Salvia columbariae), an annual sage that commonly appears in disturbed areas of chaparral, such as following brush fires. The nourishing seeds are eaten and also germinated to make bushy "chia pets." This photo shows the dense, interrupted clusters of flowers called glomerules.

Death Valley Sage (Salvia funerea)

Death Valley sage (Salvia funerea), a rare sage endemic to dry canyons bordering Death Valley. The small, violet flowers emerge from a wooly calyx that appears like a fuzzy white ball.

Aerial view of the Panamint Range on the west side of Death Valley. Death Valley sage (Salvia funerea) is endemic to some of the isolated canyons that drain into the valley floor.

Thistle Sage (Salvia carduacea)

A field of thistle sage (Salvia carduacea) in full bloom. During years with adequate rainfall, this is one of the most spectacular wildflowers in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

Close-up view of the blossoms of thistle sage (Salvia carduacea) showing the fringed, lavender corolla and deep red anthers. The leaves of this sage are covered with sharp spines.

Creeping Sage (Salvia sonomensis)

Creeping sage (Salvia sonomensis), a prostrate, mat-forming shrub that grows in the understory of chaparral in the mountains of San Diego County. Note the pocket knife (red arrow) for a size relationship. This species has an interesting disjunct distribution because it also occurs in the mountains of central and northern California. Photo was taken on the southwest side of Cuyamaca Peak in gabbro soil.

Munz Sage (Salvia munzii)

Munz sage (Salvia munzii), an endemic shrub in the coastal chaparral of San Diego County and Baja California. The common name commemorates the famous California botanist Philip A. Munz. It is similar to black sage (S. mellifera) except the flowers are smaller. This interesting species grows on the western slopes of Otay Mountain in southwestern San Diego County.

Pitcher Sage or Hummingbird Sage (Salvia spathacea)

Pitcher sage (Salvia spathacea), a beautiful perennial that is native from Sonoma County in northern California south to Orange County. It is typically found in grassy and shaded areas of coastal hills and valleys. The bracts at the base of the flowers are conspicuous and purplish. Another California pitcher sage belongs to the genus Lepechinia.

Rose Sage (Salvia pachyphylla)

Rose sage (Salvia pachyphylla), a low-growing (prostrate) shrub native to southern California.

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