By Kathleen Hale, Western Reserve Herb Society
Clary sage (Salvia sclarea) had the coolest name in the Middle Ages: “Oculus Christi”, or the “Eye of Christ”. It is also known as clear eye and eye bright. Which makes it sound both sublime and cozy.
Clary is a native of the northern Mediterranean region, and grows cheerfully to Zone 5, when provided with full sun and excellent drainage. It grows as a biennial or tender perennial, producing soft, furry gray green rosettes in the first year, and sprouting spires of pale lilac flowers in the second. While it is part of the salvia family, like true sage, clary has its own habit and uses. The two sages are not the same. But since oil derived from clary is lower in the shared component thujone, it is sometimes used as a substitute. Its reputed ability to help reduce stress and ease depression appears to be associated with thujone’s interaction with the production of dopamine.
Clary is now grown primarily for its flowers, which are used in aromatherapy and as a fixative in perfumes and potpourri. But historically clary seeds were used to relieve diseases or discomfort of the eyes. Each seed is encased in a thick, gluey goo coating described as “mucilaginous.” When the seed is deposited in the eye of someone suffering from an eye malady, this might soothe the eye, and might adhere to something caught in the eye, facilitating removal of the irritant. Since it is also reputed to have antibacterial properties, it might also help with inflammation and infection. Of course, you are still talking about putting a goopy seed in someone’s eye.
Medical use of clary goes back to at least the 4th century BCE in Greece, and it is mentioned by the great Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder in the 1st century CE. Our old friend Hildegarde of Bingen, 11th century abbess and wonder woman, concocts an antidote to poison by cooking clary sage with honey and rue, combining it with a little thorn apple, and straining the mixture through a cloth. A patient consuming this preparation can be expected to make the previously ingested poison pass “through vomiting or through the bowels, unless the poison is so strong that it brings death.”
It had more mundane uses, too. You could chop it up and put it in an omelet or in wine. It is said to have sweet, nutty odor, or a fragrance similar to lavender. Or balsam. Or camphor. Or something else pleasant. But sniff it before you commit. I think it smells nasty.
Clary is now added to hair preparations, because (like rosemary, with which it is often combined) it is supposed to foster hair growth. It was also added to ale to “make it more heady, fit to please drunkards.” This is a particularly interesting observation, because it also reputed to increase the effect of alcohol.
But if this leads to a later indisposition, Hildegarde advises a warm clary compress: “tie the head with a piece of cloth, and sleep that way; the person will get better.”