I’ll never forget the first time I saw clary sage in bloom. I literally stopped in my tracks. I wasn’t surprised to learn that clary sage is a member of the salvia family. Its flowers are the largest example of salvia flowers that I have ever seen. They range in color from pale lavender to white to pink.
Clary sage is a biennial plant growing to 3 to 4 feet in height and hardy through zone 6. It is native to the Mediterranean area so plant it in a sunny location with well-drained soil. It doesn’t like wet feet nor does it require nutrient rich soil. Many sources tell you that it is best to start the seeds indoors before your last frost but the most successful plots of clary sage that I’ve seen allow the flowers to go to seed, dropping into the garden. The seed germinates and the small plants grow until the frost. They reappear in the spring and go on to bloom in June and July.
So, what is clary sage used for? Some of its traditional names such as Clear Eye or Bright Eye give a clue to one of its uses. The seeds were used when patients had tiny particles in their eyes. A seed was placed in the eye so that the particle would attach to it making it easier to remove.
Like many herbs, it was traditionally used for many women’s complaints. In modern times pregnant women are advised to avoid it. Perhaps the most interesting use to which clary sage was put was as an adulterant in wine. Clary flowers and elder flowers were added by German merchants to cheap wines to make them taste like the more expensive Muscatel wines. The practice was so prevalent that clary sage is known in Germany as Muskateller Salbei and in England as Muscatel Sage. Nowadays clary sage is mainly grown for its essential oil which is used in aromatherapy.
I grow clary sage for its spectacular flowers. They are a welcome addition to any border or herb garden.