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Salvia sclarea: Clary Sage

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There’s something about clary. A luminescence in the way the sun catches the flowers. An appeal to the deeply-vein-carved fuzzy leaves.  And it’s an obliging plant; it’ll put on a show under almost any circumstances.

If you grow clary sage in native clay dirt, it will hang in and produce tough little plants that need no extra watering to survive. But the richer the soil, the more the water, the bigger and lusher they get; I’ve seen them at least three times the size of more poorly-fed ones, and fairly pulsing with green and silver.

If you have a limited water supply, and can’t or don’t want to amend your soil, it’s good to know the plants that will survive under those conditions. Clary sage is one of them. It’ll even grow in semi-shade, though it much prefers sun. The only places it won’t do well are full shade and boggy undrained sites.

Part of what gives the flower that luminescence, I think, comes from the different colors and textures involved. This closeup shows bracts and bi-colored flower

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and this really close shot shows how the pink-purple of the bracts contrasts with the violet-purple (and white) of the flowers in a way that somehow blends to a light-filled haze when you back off from the plant.

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Clary sage’s name supposedly originates from “clear eye”, which comes from using the seeds to take irritating stuff out of the eyes. Like chia seeds, clary seeds are covered with a mucilaginous coating that puffs up into a gel when moistened; this probably allowed the offending item to attach itself and get removed. Or  maybe the mucilage is soothing in itself, I don’t know. Culpepper (a 17th century English herbalist who made it his mission to get herbal knowledge out of the hands of the leeches and into the heads of the common folk) claims that making the mucilage into a kind of compress relieved swellings and tumors, and drew out splinters and thorns.  The leaves also have anti-inflammatory properties and, judging by the fact that he recommends them for “hot inflammations” (probably infections) they may be antiseptic as well.

I haven’t used clary for any of the purposes Culpepper recommends, but I’ve used clary medicinally in an informal way for years. One winter I had a bad case of flu. I wanted soup, but I didn’t want to go out and shop, so I had to figure out something with what I had. What I had was potatoes and clary sage plants, the only substantial green leaves still out there. I picked a couple, thinking that their hairiness wouldn’t make them much of a treat.

But I was wrong. The leaves cooked up tender and sweet, and flavored the potatoes beautifully; all I added was salt. And I swear I felt better after I ate that soup. I always eat it when I’m sick, and I always feel better after. Clary sage leaves are available all year round in my climate, although they taste better before the plant flowers.

Probably clary sage’s most famous medicinal use is in aromatherapy, where it’s recommended for creating relaxed euphoria. Many years ago I put that knowledge to good use; I was splitting up with a boyfriend I’d been living with, and as I made trips back and forth for my stuff, I sometimes had to work around the woman who was now living with him. I had planted clary sage in the garden, and it was in flower. I ran in to sniff some on one occasion, and, well, it worked. It was a friend to me in a time of sorrow, or at least severe humiliation.

Tastes differ, however, and so do senses of smell. While some people find clary sage’s scent resinous and musky, to others it smells like dirty socks and old sweat. These people are not likely to be soothed by the smell of clary sage. What’s your own response?

{ 18 comments… add one }

  • K Dilley July 13, 2009, 11:41 am

    Thank you for the first hand account of using clary sage leaves in soup for a cold. I love posts like this and you’ve motivated me to grow a cutting of this beautiful sage. I just saw one in full bloom at the botanical garden (but i wouldn’t take a cutting from there!).

  • tina July 13, 2009, 1:20 pm

    It’s really pretty and big too! I never would’ve guessed it’d get so big. So great it was a friend to you during a difficult time.

  • Kris at Blithewold July 13, 2009, 5:17 pm

    mmmm dirty socks – my favorite! I love the look clary sage and the very next thing I’m going to do is give it a good sniff. I can’t believe I haven’t done that – or made it into soup either. (actually I can believe I haven’t eaten it – I lack imagination when it comes to food. – thanks for sharing yours!)

  • Mosaic Queen July 14, 2009, 11:57 am

    Very interesting plant!

    Michelle

  • teza July 14, 2009, 2:45 pm

    One of my favourites – even if it is biennial! I love the large tomentose leaves and the bracts that hide the flowers….. stunning! I have rich soil and it gets lots of water, and was close to 5′ last year. This year lots of rosettes of big hairy leaves, telling me there will be no less that seven plants next year….. I think I’ll rename the sunny border the ‘Salvia sclarea var. ‘Turkestanica’ border!’
    Great post and wonderful photos!

  • sunny July 15, 2009, 7:03 am

    Another plant to add to the wish list, especially since it’s drought tolerant. Beautiful photos and bio of the sage. Having just put a packet of basil seeds in my pocket through the wash I can attest to the gummy coating on those too. It was hard to pry them from my fingers. Planted them and they’re up. Resilience!

  • Daffodil Planter July 15, 2009, 12:16 pm

    You had me until the “dirty socks” possible scent. It can’t be true–you wouldn’t have happily eaten a stinky soup?

    Barbara Damrosch was always banging on about Clary sage, but since she gardens in Maine I didn’t put the plant on my Nevada County list. Now I will. If both of you like it, it must be great. If I don’t like the smell you’ll find an extra plant on your doorstep.

  • Gail July 16, 2009, 3:28 am

    What a beauty…I am adding this to the list of ‘do give it a try plants’ it sounds like a good addition to the garden. gail

  • Genevieve July 16, 2009, 8:31 am

    I’m definitely going to try Clary Sage after that writeup! I currently am growing White Sage and just love it – I make my own smudge sticks with it!

    One of my favorite conditioners from Lush has clary sage in it.

  • Cyd July 21, 2009, 5:09 am

    I really like using herbs from the garden in soups and stews. I’m glad to know the leaves stick around, not much does here. Clary is one of my favorite scents in lotions and washes. I’ll be looking for this to grow.

  • mandy May 31, 2011, 8:42 pm

    I planted some seeds in my desert area years ago and it took off. I make smudge sticks and tea and a sage salve with it, it seems to help when I smudge heavy energies out with it

  • Martin Svec June 8, 2011, 12:44 pm

    I love the scent of Clary Sage! Euphoria and relaxation is what I experience, too. Such an awesome herb.

    Thank you for the info and sharing your stories — your pictures of the sage flowers are beautiful! :)

  • Richard July 5, 2011, 12:17 am

    Just returned from Provence, France where they grow this plant in huge quantities and, from a distance, it looks great. However close up both my wife & I thought it has a smell of sweaty armpits. It was also difficult to remove this smell from inside our car as it has a tendancy to cling!

  • mandy July 5, 2011, 6:57 am

    do you know what they grow it for,or do you think it is wild?

  • Gary July 9, 2011, 2:15 pm

    I have only picked up one bottle of clary sage, but whenever I smell it I always think the aroma is of TEA. Anyone else see this connection or can I just not base my sense of it on just this one bottle?

  • Judi September 3, 2012, 5:12 am

    I planted one of these and it was beautiful, but the smell when ever I brushed past it was too horrible for words. I have just pulled it up and it made me gag and want to vomit. It smelt of rotting flesh- I could manage dirty socks but this is far worse.

  • Danielle August 1, 2014, 11:04 pm

    I think clary sage smells a bit like raw mushrooms. Not a fan.

  • Anne November 15, 2015, 4:46 pm

    Gary, I thought it smelled like tea too!

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