Colourful culinary sages

Sage is a valuable kitchen herb; its many varieties add a touch of long-lasting leafy colour to herb gardens and dinner plates, says plantsman Graham Rice

Planting of multicoloured sage cultivars

There are about a dozen named varieties of our common culinary sage, Salvia officinalis.

These evergreen shrubs for sunny sites make good garden specimens with lovely soft leaves and spikes of purple-blue flowers in summer.

Although many are quite hard to find, three of them make fine garden plants and are sufficiently widely available to have been given the prestigious Award of Garden Merit (AGM). The best varieties feature improved foliage in attractive colours – the most useful of all is probably ‘Purpurascens’ (AGM), with soft grey purple leaves which are richest in colour as they first open. As vigorous as the natural form, grow it in a gravel or a Mediterranean garden, or anywhere in sun where the drainage is fairly good.
There’s also a variegated version, ‘Purpurascens Variegata’, with creamy edges to the purple leaves, but it’s hard to find in nurseries and sometimes loses its variegation. Only for a collection, really.
There are two other very appealing variegated forms. ‘Icterina’ (AGM - centre) has green leaves with slightly variable yellow edges and is as bright as ‘Purpurascens’ (right) is muted. ‘Tricolor’ (left) has pink stems, leaf stalks and shoot tips while the leaves mature to grey-green with white edges and pink tints. ‘Tricolor’ is more compact and noticeably less vigorous; it also responds less well to pruning than other types and is less winter hardy.

Salvia officinalis 'Tricolor'Salvia officinalis 'Icterina'Salvia officinalis 'Purpurescens'

Kew Gold’ is also worth mentioning. Its attractive golden leaves are sometimes flecked in green and green-leaved shoots may also appear; like 'Purpurescens Variegata', it's a hard-to-find plant for collectors.
Finally, combining value in the garden and in the kitchen, ‘Berggarten’ (AGM) has silvery-grey foliage and noticeably broad leaves. The plant is nicely compact; resulting in a plant with much more presence. This is the best choice for kitchen and garden as it looks impressive and its broad leaves provide richer flavour than some of the other varieties. In the kitchen, sage is used in stuffing, sausages and with roasts.
All enjoy fertile but well-drained soil in full sun. They can be pruned in spring to keep them bushy but don’t cut into the old wood.

Useful links

RHS advice: Growing herbs in containers

RHS advice: Propagating herbs

Choosing the best herbs for your garden

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