Sage

(Salvia officinalis) A funerary plant in some areas, and graves were planted with it (Drury. 1994), something that Pepys noticed in April, 1662: "To Gosport; and so rode to Southampton. On our way ... we observed a little churchyard, where the graves are accustomed to be sowed with Sage".

Gardeners' wisdom in America holds that it is unlucky to grow it from seed (Whitney & Bullock), and in Britain we are told to:

Plant your sage and rue together,

The sage will grow in any weather (Northall).

In Wiltshire, they say that the rue will prevent the sage being poisoned by toads (Wiltshire). But the sage will stimulate the growth of the rue, and will perform the same office for rosemary. It likes to grow with marjoram, too. If grown among cabbages, it will protect them against the cabbage white butterfly (Baker. 1980). The season of planting is important. According to a Wiltshire rhyme:

Sage set in May

Will never decay (Whitlock. 1992).

Although, in the Appledore area of Kent, there was a saying that if sage blooms, misfortune would quickly follow (Parish & Shaw) (it doesn't usually flower, for household requirements would keep it well cut), it is generally looked on as a lucky plant, able to strengthen the memory, and to impart wisdom (Waring), another way of saying that it grows best for the wise (Gordon. 1977). It is the symbol of domestic virtue (Leyel. 1937), for:

If the sage tree thrives and grows,

The master's not master, and that he knows

(Northall).

As with parsley (and rosemary) sage was said to flourish where "the missis is master". In East Anglia they used to say they could foretell the sex of a baby by studying these plants in the parent's garden. They all flourished more profusely where the mother was the dominant partner. Such a woman was more likely to have girl babies, so if a boy was wanted, the growth of the plants was restricted (Porter. 1974). An aberrant view is that sage will flourish only so long as the master of the house is in good health (Whitlock. 1992).

As well as being a lucky plant, it is a protective one, at least in Spain and Portugal, where it is thought of as proof against the evil eye (Wimberley). There is a Yorkshire divination with sage leaves. Twelve of them had to be gathered at noon on Midsummer Eve, and put in a saucer, where they would be kept till midnight, then they would be dropped out of the bedroom window one by one with the chiming of the hour. The future husband would be seen, or at least his step heard, in the street below. A Leicestershire variant of this requires the leaves to be picked at each strike of the clock at midnight (Palmer. 1985).

Medicinally speaking, sage had an extraordinary reputation:

He that would live for aye Must eat sage in May.

There is a medieval Latin version of that couplet:

Cur moriatur homo cui Salvia crescit in horto? (Clair).

In other words, how can a man die who has sage growing in his garden? After all, salvia means good health, or health-giving. It is said that a white witch's unwitching medicine consisted of, among other things and rituals, three leaves of sage and three of Herb John (Hypericum perforatum), steeped in ale, to be drunk night and morning (Seth). A more recent claim is that sage will reduce memory loss in Alzheimer's patients (R Palmer. 2001).

Its most remarkable (and genuine) property is its ability to stop perspiration. The action apparently starts two hours after the dose is taken, and can be prolonged for several days (Schauenberg & Paris). Perhaps that is why it has been used so much for fevers:

Sage helps the nerves, and by its powerfull might,

Palsies and Feavers, sharp it puts to flight.

The doggerel is by Coles. 1657. In Sussex, it used to be said that to eat nine sage leaves on nine consecutive mornings (Thompson. 1947) is a cure for the Ague, a fever akin to malaria. In the Balkans, a fever is dealt with by steeping the leaves and stems in brandy, and then straining it off (Kemp), and in America a remedy for a common cold is to drink hot, sweetened sage tea in bed, after soaking the feet in hot water (Stout).

Sage has also got the reputation of increasing women's fertility, quite deservedly, and it has been used for that purpose since ancient Egyptian times (Schauenberg & Paris). "Sauge is good to helpe a woman to conceive", as Andrew Boorde said (Boorde. 1542), and it seems to do so by arresting lactation. So a strong infusion has been used to dry up the breast milk for weaning (Fernie). Given all this, it is difficult to understand the old wives' tale that drinking salvia cooked in wine would ensure that a woman would never conceive (Boland. 1977).

It seems to have some antiseptic properties. Certainly, on the Greek island of Chios, it was used to cleanse a wound. Sage boiled with a little water is used, and the wound washed with the liquid, and the leaves were soaked and put on the cut (Argenti & Rose). But this use as a lotion has never been confined to that area, for the remedy is noted in recent herbal lists (Fluck). The leaf infusion is used, too, as a mouthwash and gargle, and the teeth can be whitened and the gums strengthened by rubbing them with sage leaves (Page. 1978), which are still used for the purpose (Vickery. 1995). Some gypsy groups make their own toothpaste with chopped sage and salt.

Sprains and swellings are helped by a poultice of the bruised fresh herb. The Housekeeper and Butler's Assistant, 1862, had the advice "bruise a handful of sage leaves and boil them in a gill of vinegar for five minutes; apply this in a folded napkin as hot as it can be borne to the part affected". Bathing the forehead with hot water in which sage had been boiled is a Cambridgeshire headache remedy (Porter. 1969). Other external uses include easing a sunburnt face by washing it with sage tea (Page. 1978). This was also used in Scotland as a hair wash (Gibson. 1959), for cold sage tea is regarded as a hair tonic (at least in America), and will also darken it (H M Hyatt). Skin disorders were treated with it, too. Wesley, for instance, prescribed it for erysipelas, or St Anthony's Fire, as it was known in his day: "... boil a handful of Sage, two Handfuls of Elder-leaves (or bark), and an ounce of Alum in two Quarts of Forge Water, to a Pint. Anoint with this every Night". Extravagant claims were made for its healing properties, not least in an Irish remedy for epilepsy, when the juice of absinthe, fennel or sage put in the patient's mouth when he fell in the fit would effect an immediate cure (Wilde. 1890). It was even suggested as a cure for paralysis in a medieval Jewish work (Trachtenberg).

A mixture of sage, knapweed and camomile flowers was a Russian folk remedy for all digestive disorders -a teaspoonful of the mixed herbs to a glass of water, boiled for 15 minutes, and strained (Kourennoff); a similar use is noted in Scotland (Gibson. 1959). Sage is good for dyspepsia, anyway - that is why it has always been been used in a stuffing for rich meat (Knight), and worms have been dealt with in America by taking sage tea (H M Hyatt). But the best known medical use is that for coughs, and has been since ancient times. It is still in use, not only for coughs, but also for colds, headaches and fevers (Conway). Cough cures are detailed as early as the 14th century, when we find "Medicina pro tussi. Take sauge and comyne and rewe and peper and seth hym to-gedre in a panne with hony, and ete ther-of a spoone ful a-morwe and at eve a-nuther" (Henslow). Another, taken from a manuscript of similar date advises an extraordinary procedure for "hym that haves the squinsy: tak a fatte katte, and fla [flay] hit well. and clene, and draw out the guttes, and take the fles of an urcheon, and the fatte of a hare, and resynes, and feinegreke, and sauge, and gumme of wodebynd, and virgyn wax; als this nye [crumble] smal, and farse [stuff] the catte within als ther a farses a goss, rost hit hale, and gader the gres and enoynt hym therewith" (Cockayne).

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