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
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.
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?