Sage, Rosemary and Thyme

By Health Coach Deb Cox, FMCHC, NBHWC

If you are familiar with Simon & Garfunkel’s song Scarborough Fair, you might think my title sounds familiar:

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme

Remember me to one who lives there

For she once was a true love of mine…”

We are going to investigate three of the four herbs they spoke of in the song, I left out parsley since it is not of the Mint (Lamiaceae, formerly called Labiatae) Family and isn’t used in Melanie’s recipe for this month “Citrus Herb Roasted Turkey Breast”.

All three herbs Sage (Salvia officinalis), Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), and Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) are native to the Mediterranean, and have histories steeped in folklore, legend, myth, medicine, and culinary uses.


Sage has long been believed to enhance health and longevity/immortality; a popular proverb from the Middle Ages gives insight into the strength of this belief:

“Why should a man die if sage grows in his garden?”

Sage was considered sacred to the Romans as the person who was to gather it must be well washed, barefoot, and clothed in a tunic, and he must place offerings of bread and wine and not use tools made of iron when gathering.  Romans also used sage to help digest fatty foods, Nero’s military physician used it to stop bleeding and treat ulcers and sores.  The ancient Greeks and Romans used it as a meat preservative and believed it could enhance memory.  Egyptians used it for fertility, Emperor Charlemagne had it planted in Germany in 812AD for trade and medicine, and American Indians use it in purifying rituals.  In the reputable medical school in Salerno (742-814AD) sage was known as the “Salvation Plant” and was, and possibly still is, mandatory to be grown in all monasteries.  English herbalists believed the more flourishing your sage plants were the more flourishing your business was.  The Chinese used sage for stomach, digestive and nervous system issues, believing it would impart physical strength and wisdom to those who consumed it.

Rosemary has a historical reputation for enhancing memory/remembrance and honoring the dead.  Shakespeare notably used references to rosemary when Ophelia petitions Hamlet,

“There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance, pray you love, remember.”

and again in Romeo and Juliet when sprigs of rosemary were laid upon Juliet at her untimely death.  Wedding headpieces and bouquets included rosemary to help the bride remember her life before marriage and sprigs were given to guests to help them remember the occasion.  In the Middle Ages it was thought to get rid of negativity, it was placed under pillows to prevent nightmares, and burned in the home to keep the Black Plague and illness at bay.  It was also thought to promote prosperity and encourage happiness.  Greek students would braid sprigs of rosemary into their hair to help them score well on exams.  I used an essential oil inhaler infused with rosemary oil when I sat for my National Boards a few years ago, it can’t hurt!!  There is modern science showing that it can boost memory and concentration, lift your mood, and help fight mental fatigue and keep you alert.  In the French language of flowers, rosemary represents the power of rekindling lost energy.

Thyme had just as long a historical adventure as sage and rosemary, beginning in ancient Egypt as part of the embalming/mummification process.  Its uses have included being used as a cure for poisons, a pain reliever, a sign of courage and farewell, and to calm the nerves among other things.  The Romans thought by eating it before meals it would cure poisons, so it became extremely popular with Roman emperors.  From the time of ancient Rome through Medieval England it was given to soldiers going off to war/battle as a sign of courage, an emblem of bravery and respect.  Ladies in the days of chivalry and knights would embroider a bee hovering above a spray of thyme on a scarf they would present to their chosen protector.  During the Black Plague it was used in many medicines.  Thyme was also thought to combat fatigue as Virgil states in his Eclogue,

“Thestlis for mowers and tired with parching heat Garlic and Thyme, strong smelling herbs, doth beat.”

The “bed” where Mary gave birth to Jesus was thought to include thyme.  Thyme was used as an indicator to determine the quality of honey for that year as it is a favorite among bees.  Hippocrates recommended thyme for respiratory conditions.

Growing Tips

Okay, that was a good run through some of the history of these herbs, which do have a lot of similarities that carry forward into their uses today in cooking and herbal remedies.  Growing them in your garden is not hard and all three perennials are relatively hardy and low maintenance, once established.

Sage can be started from seed, but buying year old plants, or getting divisions of established plants from gardening friends, will allow you to harvest the same year, as it usually takes two growing seasons to get the plants to a stage where you can harvest a good crop.  In warmer climates zone 8 and above some shade should be provided during the hottest weather.  Sage does not like “wet feet”, especially in the winter, so try not to over water and be sure containers drain well.  Sage can be planted with cabbage (and other cruciferous veggies) and carrots to ward off pests and enhance the flavor of cabbage, in particular.  Cucumbers do not enjoy any aromatic herbs near them especially sage.  You can harvest sage anytime during the growing season, the leaves seem to have the most flavor right before the flowers open.  Every three to five years replace your plants as they will begin to get woody and production will dwindle.  I’m going to start taking divisions from my old plant next spring as I am sure it is older than 5 years, but still going strong!

Rosemary, probably one of my favorite herbs, has been one of the hardest for me to keep going in my garden, probably has to do with our high desert climate.  I have 2 plants now that are going into their second winter, I have found they like being covered when night temps drop below 30°.  Rosemary is difficult to start from seed, the process can take 22 weeks and germination is not guaranteed, so I would advise buying plants or relying on your gardening friends for cuttings.  Rosemary likes sun and does not like to be transplanted.  Once established Rosemary does not need much attention and like sage does not like “wet feet”.  As with sage keep it away from your cucumbers.  You can harvest rosemary anytime, watching that you don’t remove more than 20% of the plant at a time, best practice is to remove only 4” from the ends of the branches.  You can also use whole branches from well-established plants as skewers when grilling…yum!

Thyme is an herb that I have had success starting from seed, although I have purchased my fair share of plants as I have a hard time finding seed for lemon thyme, one of my very favorite herbs.  I’m excited to divide the plants I started from seed next spring/summer.  Thyme likes full sun and is not picky about attention, it actually prefers infertile soil, but like the other two does not like “wet feet”, it only needs occasional watering.  I can overwinter thyme here in the high desert with a row cover, I try to open the cover on warm sunny winter days to keep my herbs happy.  Thyme repels cabbage worms and white flies in the garden and enhances the aromatics of other herbs and plants, just keep it away from the cucumbers.  Bees love thyme so plant throughout the garden to help pollination.  The best harvest is right before the flowers open, but it can be harvested any time.  A key to thriving thyme is to always leave behind at least 5 inches of the plant, don’t over-harvest.

The value of herbs in your garden is profound, and these three are versatile and relatively easy to grow; they can be placed in flower gardens and along paths and just about anywhere so you can have easy access to them when cooking or making a cup of herbal tea.


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