Dear Readers, Turkish sage was a new plant to me when I first saw it in Dad’s garden a few years ago, but since then I have seen it all over the place. When in flower, it reminds me of nothing so much as those dishes of peeled prawns surrounding a bowl of cocktail sauce that were such a staple of buffets in the 1980’s. The seedhead, on the other hand, reminds me of a miniature wasps’ nest.
The plant is a member of one of my favourite families, the Lamiaceae or deadnettle family, and as its name suggests, it comes originally from Turkey and Syria. The plant’s generic name ‘Phlomis’, which means ‘flame’ in Greek, may relate to its use as a lampwick in ancient times, or to the strange shape of the flowers. As is often the case with complicated blooms, only bumblebees have the knowledge and the weight to open and pollinate this plant. The furry leaves are fed upon by the caterpillars of two tiny moths in the Coleophora genus – these are ‘case-bearer’ moths, in which the individual larvae build themselves tiny protective cases out of silk and bits of plant. It’s difficult to identify these creatures down to the species level because they are so discreet and the differences are so subtle. Quite possibly there are whole new species in our gardens just waiting to be discovered.
Phlomis has been grown in the UK since at least the 1700’s – the head gardener of Chelsea Physic Garden, Philip Miller, grew many species between 1722 and 1771, while he was curator. The plants have spread into the wild in some places in the south west, and, while frost-hardy, do seem to prefer sunny, well-drained sites. Like so many Mediterranean plants they do not seem to mind poor soil.Although called a sage, I can find no reasonable evidence that Phlomis is edible, or has been used in cookery, even in its native range. I suspect that with so many other tasty true woody herbs, such as thesages and thymes and lavenders and rosemaries being available, no one would bother with this plant. Plus, there are several references to those hairy leaves causing itching in those prone to dermatitis, so perhaps it’s best to admire from a safe distance.
Medicinally there is a rumour that the leaves were used in a tea to cure sore throats, but I suspect that this is more likely to have been ‘proper’ sage (Salvia officinalis). As noted in previous posts, the use of common names can get one into all kinds of trouble. However, one scientific paper from Turkey suggests that a member of the Phlomis genus, Phlomis grandiflora, gives some protection to people with stomach ulcers. A further paper from Jordan suggests that Phlomis brachydon may have anti-microbial properties. Maybe I should not be so quick to dismiss this plant. People often know exactly what medicinal purposes their local plants can be used for, having worked with them for centuries.
For the gardener, one of the most spectacular features of Turkish sage is the seedhead. How magnificent a stand of these will be after the first frost, and I can’t help wondering if tiny bees will hibernate in those inviting nooks and crevices.
For our poem this week, I hope you will permit me a rather loose connection. Undoubtedly the sage in this poem is not Phlomis, but Salvia. But the poem is about Turkey, where our plant comes from, and so there is a link, in my mind at least. The poet, Fady Joudah, is a Palestinian-American doctor as well as being a poet, and has worked for Medecin sans Frontieres in Zambia and Sudan.
The Tea and Sage Poem
Photo Two by By J. Lång – http://wibe.ath.cx/hyonteiset/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=16159, Copyrighted free use, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9566878
Photo Three By Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Photo Four by CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2061557