Simple, Beautiful Clary Sage

sageWhen friends drop by in summer, they always stop at the gate to see the clary sage that graces the border of the herb garden. Its impressive, heart-shaped, velvety leaves fan out as big as a hand and are pungently fragrant. By August, tiny blossoms and showy pastel bracts nod on tall, square stems, attracting bees and even an occasional hummingbird.

Clary sage (Salvia sclarea) is a biennial or short-lived perennial herb – an old-world type of plant that’s easy to propagate and effortless to grow. The variety turkestaniana, with larger floral bracts in shades of lilac pink, is the choice of most gardeners for its broader splashes of misty color.The clary sage is rich with the history of Europe and Great Britain’s physick gardens, containing plants and herbs grown for their medicinal properties. Medieval healers knew it as “clear eye” because the plant’s seed was said to clear the sight.

But beyond its ancient uses, clary sage is a plant gardeners still appreciate for its simple beauty. The leaves’ unique aroma, reminiscent of fresh-peeled grapefruit, is released when you crush a leaf in your hand or happen to brush against it. Clary sage’s presence adds grace and charm to a garden setting.

Clary sage prefers a sunny location, but will tolerate a partly shady spot, too. In either case, the site should be well protected from harsh winds that might damage or break the tall flower stalks, and the plant must be given plenty of room to spread.

Hardy to Zone 6, clary sage is a tough, drought-tolerant plant suitable for dry, stony sites, but given a little extra attention it will richly reward the gardener with its outstanding floral display. To prepare a well-draining bed for clary sage, dig in a shovelful of completely rotted manure or compost for each two-foot-square section of bed. Dig the area deeply, at least to the depth of one to two spades, to make a friable soil that will give the roots ample room to expand.

Sow the seed 3/4 inches deep in spring, just as the ground is warming, and water well. Thin seedlings when they are about 2 inches tall. The first year, the plant will leaf out, producing a rosette of ovate leaves only a few inches tall but up to 10 inches across. The floral display is reserved for the second season when these plants grow full and lush, sending up their spectacular, multi-branched 3-foot flower spike.

Applying a mulch helps protect the plants and conserves moisture in periods of drought. With heavy mulch, however, sowbugs and earwigs may become a problem, as the mulch cover provides the perfect living space for these pests. An easy, nochemical way to control the pest population is to immediately clear the bed of all mulch and plant debris and let the summer sun bake the soil for a week or two. The mulch can always be added again in fall to protect new plants from frost damage. Since my plants grow in the mottled sunlight under the branches of a huge white oak, I use the leaves that drop each autumn as a handy, natural winter protection. I leave them where they fall to blanket the plants and decompose through winter. No other mulch is necessary in my Zone 9 garden.

As the summer season progresses and the long-lasting blossoms finally fade and die, small blackish-brown seeds form. Try gathering and saving the seed for spring planting and share some with your gardening friends. Or simply allow the plant to self-sow by letting the heavy, nodding flower clusters scatter their seeds far and wide. Next spring, the seedlings can be moved into the border, spaced 12 inches apart.

However you choose to propagate the clary sage, replenish the supply every year or two as individual plants of clary sage tend to deteriorate in color and quality over time.

Clary sage is a decorative and easy-to-grow addition to any garden. The A handsome cloak of green leaves and spectacular flower display flourish in exchange for only a little water on the hottest summer days and the trimming of dead stems and leaves in fall. Season after season, clary sage’s winsome pastel beauty continues to please the eye.

Flower & Garden Magazine, June-July, 1994 by Donna Caye

COPYRIGHT 1994 KC Publishers, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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