Clary Sage

+ Family / Subfamily: Lamiaceae / Nepetoideae
+ Genus: Salvia
+ Species: Salvia sclarea
+ Names: clary, clary sage, clear-eye, Muskatellersalbei, Römischer Salbei, Scharlei, Scharlauch

Clary sage is a shimmering plant, as I experienced first hand, for example, when trying to photograph or capture it in the lines of a magical sigil. It shimmers in the moon light, it shimmers in the day light, and it appears as something that it is not. And, as we shall see, this shimmering aspect occurs again and again, e.g. when it comes to its name and uses. But it is also a powerful herb of the midwife and a strong ally of women.

Clary Sage is named so in English speaking countries due to an actual misunderstanding: the sticky seeds of a related sage species (Salvia verbenaca) were used to remove foreign objects from the eye, literally “keeping the eyes clear”. This practice was mentioned for example by Nicholas Culpeper in his Complete Herbal (1653), who referred to the plant as “clear-eye”. Since, this “eye clearing” property has been attributed to “clary sage”, which has also been referred to as oculus Christi, seebright and Godes-eie.  So, somehow two sage species became mixed up and the misnomer was carried on until modern times. However, clary sage produces indeed a gluey substance and the whole plant is tacky to the touch.

The origin of the Latin species name, too, is subject to confusion:  Some modern interpretations draw indeed a connection between the “eye clearing” association and the Latin word clarus, meaning “bright”. It has also been suggested, sclarea would come from sclareus, meaning “scarlet red”, which is reflected in the German name “Scharlei” and which could refer to the bright purple bracts. However, a very different, and more likely explanation refers to early Latin sources, mentioning a plant named hastula regia, from hasta – “rod, spear” and regius – “king”, meaning a “king’s scepter”, whose flowers were used to adorn religious idols (see). As such, the plant was probably mistaken or substituted for asphodel. Through aphaeresis, the name changed to ascla reia (see) and ultimately to sclarea.

As mentioned above, the entire plant is sticky to the touch. It is covered with oil glands and smells deeply aromatic. The flowers are steam distilled to produce a fragrant essential oil, which is valued in perfumery for its sweet-floral, spicy and nutty notes. The oil is also employed in aromatherapy. It contains among others the amber colored substance sclareol, which smells sweet balsamic and has hormone like effects. 100 kg plant material are needed on average to produce 1 l oil.

In the past, clary sage oil was used as a muscatel flavoring for vermouths, wines, and liqueurs. This property is reflected in the German name “Muskatellersalbei”.  It was also added to beer, since it enhances the effects of alcohol and has strong euphoriant properties. Rätsch claims in the Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants, clary sage would contain a-Thujone (like true sage), but I did not find any sources to proof this.

Clary sage oil is used for various medicinal purposes and shares a number of applications with true sage: it acts antiseptic, antispasmodic, anxiolytic, antidepressant, appetizing, digestive, emmenagogue and ecbolic. It plays a big roll in anything related to women’s disorders, e.g. it enhances menstrual flow, eases period pains and soothes headaches. My midwife recommended it as part of a perineal massage oil. It is a mild agent to soothe birth pain and assists uterine contraction as well as baby drop (the fetal head’s descend into the pelvic cavity during the third trimester). It should hence not be consumed during pregnancy, save for the last three weeks.

Caroline Maxelone suggests in her book Räucherstoffe aus aller Welt, the large leaves of clary sage can be rolled up and burnt as smudge sticks.

Clary sage plant in my garden, June 2018

Clary sage is a spicy fragrant and impressive member in the mint family. Its habitat ranges from the Mediterraneans to central Asia, where it grows on rocks and waysides, on dry and sandy grounds. It is biennial, but may also come back as a short-lived perennial. During the first year it grows a large leave rosette, gathering energy from photo-synthesis and developing a taproot. In the second year emerges a bright inflorescence, which gets up to 1,5 m tall and consists of verticils with 2-6 flowers on each. The flowers are held in colorful bracts that range from mauve or pink to green-white. The corolla of the flower is light blue to purple and the lips are white. The verticils are arranged on multiple square stems, which are covered with hairs. The leaves are heart shaped and also covered with glandular hairs, giving them a silvery look and fluffy touch. The cultivar S. sclarea ‘Turkestanica’ bears pink stems, petiolate leaves, and white, pink-flecked blossoms on spikes to 76 cm tall.

Clary sage begins to flower in June and continues flowering until late September. Bees and insects mimicking bees, frequent the flowers. It is sometimes grown commercially as a bee plant, with 1 ha yielding 107 – 174 kg honey.

Clary sage favors a warm spot in the sun and tolerates drought. The soil should be well drained and mildly calciferous. It is hardy from zones 4-8. Allow for a single clary sage plant to set and spread seed and you will have clary sage in the garden for the years to come. For propagating clary sage from seed, see:

“Mercury” harvest, including clary sage flowers and leaves

Magical and spiritual attributions: Mercury + Moon herb, clairvoyance, oneiromancy, creativity, protection, illusion (tricking the senses), calming, relaxing, soothing, opening up new ways and introducing new beginnings, counteracting Saturn magic by dissolving borders and discarding the past, magical amplifier, suggested as a non-toxic substitute for nightshades in “flying ointments”

Besides, Harold Roth introduces clary sage as a prime example for biennials and discusses their connection with the underworld, their behavior towards the sun and inherent light/dark dualism as well as their potential Mars properties. Harold especially emphasizes clary sage’s illusionist powers, which he refers to as clary sage’s special “glamour”, a term also by Daniel A. Schulke in his Viridarium Umbris.


+ Muskatellersalbeiöl + Genaust, Etymologisches Wörterbuch der botanischen Pflanzennamen + Monica Niederer, Botanicus + Harold Roth, The Witching Herbs + Caroline Maxelon, Räucherstoffe aus aller Welt +

Garden and Art Blog

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