Salvia officinalis (PROSEA)

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Plant Resources of South-East Asia
List of species

1, flowering branch; 2, flower; 3, section through flower; 4, stamens; 5, calyx; 6, nutlet

Salvia officinalis L.

Protologue: Sp. pl.: 23 (1753).
Family: Labiatae
Chromosome number: 2n = 14


  • Salvia chromatica Hoffsgg. (1824),
  • S. papillosa Hoffsgg. (1828).

Vernacular names

  • Sage, garden sage, true sage (En)
  • Sauge (Fr)
  • Philippines: salvia (Cebuano).

Origin and geographic distribution

Sage is native to the Adriatic belt of the Balkan peninsula (Greece, Albania, former Yugoslavia) and doubtfully native but certainly naturalized in southern France and in Spain. It is widely cultivated in Europe, particularly in the Mediterranean, but it has spread widely and is cultivated in many countries of all continents. In Malaysia, it is grown in the hills in Pinang, in Indonesia in the mountainous regions of Java, and in the Philippines on specialized farms in Luzon at altitudes above 500 m.


Sage has been used since ancient times as a culinary herb, essential-oil plant, medicinal plant and as an ornamental. Sage is best known for its dried leaves, available whole, rubbed or ground, which are used as a spice for flavouring sausages, stuffings, soups and canned vegetables. Fresh leaves are used in herb butters, cheeses, liqueurs, pickles, salads and vinegars, and they make a good dentifrice. Sage combines a nice aroma with a unique bitter and pungent taste.

In the United States the regulatory status "generally recognized as safe” has been accorded to sage (GRAS 3000), sage oil (GRAS 3001) and sage oleoresin (GRAS 3002). The oil is extensively used in food products, including alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. The maximum permitted level in food is about 0.5%. Sage oleoresin is used similarly in flavouring all kinds of food products. The maximum permitted level reported is about 0.014% in meat and meat products. Sage essential oil is also used in perfumery, for deodorants, in pesticidal preparations, and as medicine. Medicinally, sage is used as mild tonic, aromatic bitter, astringent, carminative, antiseptic, antipyretic, and remedy for tumours and cancers. As it contains oestrogenic substances, it is a traditional medicine for female disorders. Sage oil is used for treating rheumatic pains; it is said to cause violent convulsions reminiscent of attacks of epilepsy convulsant. Sage gargle is recommended for bleeding gums, sore throat and tonsillitis. Sage tea is a good tonic. Sage can serve as a source of natural antioxidants.

Production and international trade

The Balkan region bordering the Adriatic Sea is the major producing and exporting area of sage and sage oil. The United States, where sage is one of the most popular culinary herbs, is the main importer (Yugoslavian sage, Dalmatian sage).

In the late 1980s, annual imports of sage into selected Western European markets amounted to 1750 t per annum, with Germany accounting for 650 t, United Kingdom for 500 t, France for 450 t, and the Netherlands for 150 t. Major suppliers were Yugoslavia, Turkey, Greece, Albania, Italy, Morocco and Israel. The United States, the biggest user of sage, consumes about 4000 t annually.


The dried ground herb contains per 100 g edible portion: water 6-8 g, protein 10-11 g, fat 13-15 g, carbohydrates 34-42 g, fibre 16-18 g, ash 8 g (Ca 1.7 g, P 91 mg, Fe 28 mg, Mg 428 mg, Na 11 mg, K 1.1 g, Zn 5 mg), vitamin A 5900 IU, thiamine 0.75 mg, riboflavin 0.34 mg, niacin 6 mg, and ascorbic acid 32 mg. The energy value is 1320-1735 kJ/100 g (dried).

The essential oil of sage, to which the plant owes its flavour and character, is produced by steam distillation of freshly harvested leaves. Dry leaves yield up to 2.5% essential oil, depending on the country of origin, growing conditions, and harvesting season. Its colour is pale yellow to almost colourless, its odour strongly aromatic, sickly sweet, camphoraceous, eucalyptus-like. The main components are α-thujone, β-thujone, 1,8-cineole and camphor, but the composition varies widely with the source. The thujones are responsible for the strong characteristic smell of sage. A monograph on the physiological properties of sage oil has been published by the Research Institute for Fragrance Materials (RIFM).

In addition to the essential oil, the leaves contain tannin, fumaric acid, malic acid, ursolic acid, picrosalvin, saponin, pentoses, a wax, and potassium nitrate. Picrosalvin and carnosol are the bitter principles. Nearly 120 mg of picrosalvin can be obtained from 30 kg of sage. Sage, sage oleoresin and sage oil exhibit antioxidant properties due to the presence of a polyhydric phenol. Sage has considerable pesticidal activity.

Sage oleoresin is usually prepared from the Dalmatian type of sage. It is a brownish-green liquid containing a minimum volatile oil content of 25-30 ml per 100 g (1 kg is roughly equivalent to 13.5 kg of ground sage).

Seeds contain 18% protein and a drying oil used as a bonding agent in oil paints. The oil contains 14.2% oleic acid, 29.2% linoleic, 34.7% linolenic and 12% saturated acids.


Sage oil (from Spain) (Source: Sanchez-Gomez et al., 1995.)

  • 22.8% α-thujone
  • 15.7% 1,8-cineole
  • 10.9% viridiflorol
  • 8.9% β-pinene
  • 6.7% borneol
  • 5.0% camphor
  • 4.3% β-thujone
  • 3.6% manool
  • 3.1% α-terpineol
  • 3.0% α-pinene
  • 2.7% β-caryophyllene
  • 2.3% δ-cadinol
  • 2.1% camphene
  • 1.4% caryophyllene oxide
  • 0.8% limonene
  • 0.8% (Z)-β-ocimene
  • 0.7% terpinen-4-ol
  • 0.5% myrcene
  • 0.5% para-cymene
  • 0.4% α-terpinene
  • 0.4% bornyl acetate
  • 0.3% γ-terpinene
  • 0.3% linalool
  • 0.3% α-humulene
  • 0.3% spathulenol
  • 0.2% δ-cadinene
  • 0.2% δ-terpineol
  • 0.2% α-cadinol
  • 0.2% (E)-β-ocimene
  • 0.2% terpinolene
  • 0.2% geraniol
  • 0.1% linalyl acetate
  • 0.1% sabinene
  • 0.1% α-thujene
  • 99.0% total

Sage oil (from Italy) (Source: Carta et al., 1996.)

  • 26.9% β-thujone
  • 23.0% α-thujone
  • 11.8% 1,8-cineole
  • 6.7% pinocarveol
  • 5.8% camphene
  • 4.6% β-caryophyllene
  • 3.7% α-pinene
  • 3.0% borneol
  • 2.6% limonene
  • 2.0% linalool
  • 1.6% β-pinene
  • 1.5% bornyl acetate
  • 0.9% para-cymene
  • 0.7% myrcene
  • 0.5% α-terpinyl acetate
  • 0.4% terpinen-4-ol
  • 0.3% caryophyllene oxide
  • 0.2% γ-terpinene
  • 0.1% α-thujene
  • 0.1% α-terpineol
  • 96.2% total

Adulterations and substitutes

The most common adulterant of sage is by its own stems (excluding petioles); these should not exceed 10%. Sage is often augmented with leaves of some other Salvia spp., in particular S. fruticosa Miller (syn.: S. triloba L.f.) (Greek sage). Thujone from cheaper sources is a common adulterant of sage oil. In turn, sage oil is used for adulterating rosemary and lavender oils.


  • Perennial, erect or decumbent subshrub, 40-70 cm tall, rooting at the base, very aromatic with small, sessile, oil globules on most green parts. Stem quadrangular, patent tomentose.
  • Leaves opposite, simple; petiole 0-5 cm long; blade oblong-lanceolate to elliptical, 1-10 cm × 0.25-5 cm, entire, rugose, more or less narrowed at base, margin thickly herbaceous, greenish above, white-pubescent beneath, densely pubescent when young.
  • Inflorescence raceme-like, 10-30 cm long, composed of axillary reduced cymes forming false whorls (verticillasters), rarely branched; verticillasters remote, sessile, 4-10-flowered.
  • Pedicel up to 1 cm long; calyx campanulate, 10-15 mm long, 2-lipped, lower lip 2-dentate, upper lip 3-dentate, glandular punctate; corolla tubular, up to 3.5 cm long, violet-blue, pink or white, inside with a ring of hairs, 2-lipped, lips about equal in length, upper lip erect, lower lip 3-lobed and curved outward; stamens 2, filaments short, glabrous, articulating with a slender connective; connective linear, transverse, both arms subequal, each bearing a fertile, linear anther-cell but upper one larger than lower one; disk equal-sided; pistil with a deeply 4-partite ovary and a shortly 2-fid, glabrous style.
  • Fruit composed of 4 nutlets; nutlet subglobose to trigonous, up to 2.5 mm in diameter, smooth, glabrous, dark brown.

Growth and development

In West Java, sage flowers in September. It is self-compatible, but predominantly cross-pollinated by insects. Sage is much frequented by butterflies and bees. Most cultivated Salvia species do not set viable nutlets in the tropical lowlands.

Other botanical information

S. officinalis forms part of a complex of several closely related species, the most important being S. fruticosa Miller, S. lavandulifolia Vahl and S. tomentosa Miller. S. fruticosa has simple or, more often, trilobed leaves with 1(-2) pairs of lobes at the base of a larger terminal leaflet, calyx 5-8 mm long, corolla 16-25 mm long. It occurs naturally in the central and eastern Mediterranean region from Sicily to Crete and in Libya, but is also cultivated and sometimes naturalized outside this region (e.g. Canary Islands, Morocco and Algeria). S. lavandulifolia has often been considered as a form of S. officinalis; its verticillasters bear 6-8 flowers, the calyx is 8-12 mm long and the corolla 20-25 mm; it occurs wild in Spain and southern France, but is also cultivated elsewhere. S. tomentosa (synonym: S. grandiflora Etlinger) has leaves up to 6.5 cm wide which are rounded to cordate at base, verticillasters bear 4-10 flowers, calyx is 10-15 mm long, corolla up to 35 mm; it occurs wild in the central and southern parts of the Balkan peninsula, but is occasionally also cultivated elsewhere. It yields a commercial essential oil different from sage oil.

Numerous cultivars of S. officinalis exist, e.g. "Albiflora” with white flowers, said to be the best culinary sage; "Purpurescens” with purple young leaves; "Rubriflora” with reddish-purple flowers, known to have been cultivated in Europe since the 16th Century.

Salvia L. comprises about 500 species, widely distributed in temperate and subtropical regions, but with few in the tropics. About 20 species occur in South-East Asia; 6 are native or truly naturalized, the others occur only in cultivation (mainly as ornamentals).


Sage grows best on a rich clay loam with good drainage, in sunny but protected locations. Ample light and high temperatures promote the production of essential oil, so that sage cultivated in Dalmaty (Yugoslavia) yields 2.5% essential oil compared with 1.4% when cultivated in northern Europe. Experiments on photoperiodic response point to most profuse flowering under long-day conditions. Thanks to its woody parts sage is rather hardy.

Propagation and planting

Sage is usually grown from seed, but propagation by cuttings, layering or division is also practised. Seeds can be stored for more than 6 years at 5°C in airtight containers. At ambient temperatures (10°/30°C), germination markedly decreases after 2 years of storage. Seeds germinate in about 4 weeks; when strong enough, the seedlings are transplanted. Sage should be planted in rows 0.75-1 m apart, at distances of 35-60 cm in the row. It is often planted in gardens as a border plant. Stable manure or NPK fertilizer should be applied before planting.

Commercial propagation of ornamental cultivars is usually by cuttings. Cuttings normally root in 2-3 weeks at 18-20°C.


A fertilizer side-dressing 6-8 weeks after planting is recommended. It is common to divide the clumps biennially, since the plants become straggling if left longer. After about 4 years, sage plants become very woody, and the planting has to be rejuvenated in view of declining yields. However, many sage plants in gardens are 15-20 years old.

Diseases and pests

Sage is largely unaffected by diseases and pests. Root-rot caused by Armillaria mellea has been observed on dying sage in Greece, downy mildew by Peronospora lamii in Florida (United States), and foliar necrosis by Colletotrichum gloeosporioides in Argentina.

Eupteryx melissae has been reported as a pest on sage in New Zealand.

Nematodes are the major problem in sage cultivation. Tylenchorhynchus initans is a problem in India, and root-knot nematode (Meloidogyne incognita) in the United States.


The highest essential-oil content occurs in leaves of non-flowering plants. Stems are very poor in essential oil. The harvested crop usually consists of the top 20 cm of growth, cut just before flowering. Inflorescences are sometimes removed if harvesting has to be delayed. The highest grade product is obtained by harvesting only the leaves, and the lowest one by cutting the crop with a mowing machine.


In the first year yields of dried leaves are usually low. In the second and third years, annual yields of 1.2-2(-5) t/ha are possible, declining in the fourth and fifth years. Annual yields (except the first year) of 2.5-5 t/ha are reported from the United States, whereas experimental yields of 12.7 t/ha (yielding 173 kg essential oil) in 2 years have been obtained in Switzerland.

Handling after harvest

Fresh leaves should be used or processed as soon as possible, for they lose much of their aroma unless carefully dried. In small-scale production, a warm airy room is best for drying, the plants being either put loosely upon racks or on the floor, or hung from the ceiling and walls. In large-scale production, dehydrators are used with a steady current of warm air. Drying temperatures of 25-30°C are best, both to minimize loss of oil and to ensure good product appearance and low moisture content. After drying, the leaves are separated from the stems, rubbed or ground to a powder, and stored in airtight containers, as the loss of volatile oil continues after drying.

Genetic resources and breeding

Most European gene banks have one to several accessions of S. officinalis. The largest numbers have been reported from the Plant Germplasm Bank (Braga, Portugal, 40 accessions), the Research and Breeding Institute for Vegetables and Special Plants (Nové Zámky, Slovakia, 16 accessions), the Gene Bank Department, Research Institute for Crop Production (Olomouc-Holice, Czech Republic, 12 accessions) and the Gene Bank, Institute for Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (Gatersleben, Germany, 10 accessions). No breeding programmes for S. officinalis are known of.


Sage is an important herb in the flavour and fragrance industry, with interesting secondary uses as medicinal, antimicrobial, insecticidal and ornamental plant. Small-scale cultivation in South-East Asia is taking place, mainly to satisfy the demand of a foreign clientele (international hotels, fast-food chains). Potentially sage may be an interesting crop for the South-East Asian region, and, therefore, deserves more attention.


  • Chalchat, J.C., Michet, A. & Pasquier, B., 1998. Study of clones of Salvia officinalis L. Yields and chemical composition of essential oil. Flavour and Fragrance Journal 13(1): 68-70.
  • Farrel, K.T., 1985. Spices, condiments and seasonings. Van Nostrand Reinhold Co., New York, United States. pp. 199-203.
  • Hanson, W.I. & Hocking, G.M., 1957. Garden sage. Economic Botany 11: 64-74.
  • Hedge, I.C., 1972. Salvia. In: Tutin, T.G. et al. (Editors): Flora Europaea. Vol. 3. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom. pp. 188-192.
  • Kains, W.G., 1960. Sage. In: Bailey, L.H. (Editor): The standard cyclopedia of horticulture. Vol. III. The MacMillan Co., New York, United States. pp. 3047-3048.
  • Keng, H., 1978. Labiatae. Salvia. In: van Steenis, C.G.G.J. (Editor): Flora Malesiana. Series I, Vol. 8(3). pp. 356-360.
  • Prakash, V., 1990. Leafy spices. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, United States. pp. 75-83.
  • Rosúa, J.L. & Blanca, J., 1986. Revision del género Salvia L. (Lamiaceae) en el Meditarráneo Occidental: la sección Salvia [Revision of the genus Salvia (Lamiaceae) in the southern Mediterranean: the section Salvia]. Acta Botánica Malacitana 11: 227-271.
  • The Wealth of India (various editors), 1948-1976. A dictionary of Indian raw materials and industrial products: raw materials. Publications and Information Directorate, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Delhi, India. Vol. 9. pp. 195-198.

Sources of illustrations

Gams, H., 1927. Labiatae. In: Hegi, G. (Editor): Illustrierte Flora von Mittel-Europa [Illustrated flora of Central Europe]. Vol. 5(4). Lehmanns Verlag, München, Germany. Fig. 3334, p. 2481. Redrawn and adapted by P. Verheij-Hayes.


  • U.A. Dasuki