This week’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Salvia lyrata, or Lyre-Leaf Sage. This plant is a polarizing one – some people love it as a wildflower and plant it in their gardens, and others call it a noxious weed and do everything they can to exterminate it. It’s a member of the mint family, and like its cousins Purple Deadnettle, Henbit, and Ground Ivy, it’s tenacious, hardy, and spreads quickly… which gives rise to its other name, Cancer Weed, as it “spreads upon the earth like a cancer.”
A semi-evergreen perennial herb, lyre-leaf sage forms a basal rosette of leaves on the ground with no visible stalk. In the late spring (basically now), it sends up a 16”-24” flower stalk with a whorl of bluish-purple, drooping, tubular flowers. The flower stem and leaf stems are square and covered in fine hairs. The leaves are 2”-8” long and shaped sort of like a lyre, as the name implies. If we’ve got any lyre-players in the house, you know. If you’re not familiar with the shape, it’s an ancient musical instrument that’s a bit like a cross between a guitar and a harp. Google it. The leaves are irregularly lobed, hairy, and bright green with red veining and margins. Lyre-leaf sage is a hardy and versatile plant – it’s not too picky about habitat. It does prefer full sun in open areas, so you’ll find it most often in abandoned fields, pastures, homestead sites, yards, roadsides, and waste areas. It’s a native plant, and you’ll find it in the Eastern half of the U.S., from the coast to the Great Plains.
Lyre-leaf sage is edible, and fairly tasty as wild greens go. When the leaves are young, they have a mild, crisp, slightly minty flavor that’s great in salads or cooked as a potherb. Right now is the time to pick greens if you’re going to eat them to actually enjoy them. After the plant goes to seed in a few weeks and the weather heats up, the greens turn seriously bitter. Sage isn’t super nutritious compared to a lot of native greens. It’s got a decent amount of vitamin C, fiber, and water, but nothing like its cousins, especially Ground Ivy. Consider it the iceberg lettuce of the wild edible world.
Lyre-leaf sage has many of the medicinal properties of other members of its family, but isn’t as strong. The primary means of consumption is a tea or infusion made from the leaves and flowers, ideally dried. If you want to use the flowers later, right now is a great time to be picking and drying them for your apothecary. The tea has a nice, mild minty flavor and is a great treatment for digestive ailments. It’s a carminative (yes… it’s a natural Gas-X), gentle laxative, and antacid. It’s also used for respiratory and throat ailments such as colds, coughs, sore throat, and mouth sores. Externally, a poultice (or if you’re really serious, a salve), can be used for sores and cuts. This plant’s alternate name, Cancer Weed, also references its use as a folk remedy for cancer. Native Americans and early pioneers held to the belief that “like cured like.” So, since lyre-leaf sage spreads quickly and aggressively over the ground like a cancer, it naturally made sense to use it to treat the disease. Even by my grandmother’s day, almost everyone had already come to the agreement that it doesn’t work. There are many plants (some of them native to Georgia!) that show promise for treating or curing certain types of cancer, but sadly, Cancer Weed isn’t one of them.
I hope you’ll excuse me, but I’m about to go off on a tangent here. This plant, for me anyway, is a great example of why having a basic level of botanical knowledge is valuable. I knew I wanted to do a post on this plant. I’ve been eating the leaves off and on for most of my life. I knew it had medicinal properties. But I couldn’t find the name of it for the life of me. So I did some deduction. I knew that since it had a square stem, it was a member of the Mint family. Its tubular purple flowers on tall stalks told me it was probably a Salvia. So I looked up native Salvia species in Georgia, and there it was. Lyre-Leaf Sage.
The moral of this story is twofold: One is that I don’t always know everything about the plants I write about going in. I often have to do a little background research. So although I probably know a little more about wild plants than most, I’m not a botanical savant, and there’s absolutely no reason that you can’t gain the same level of knowledge. The other is that with plants, the more you know generally, the less you have to know specifically. The example we always give on our walkabouts is white oaks and red oaks. There are dozens of oak species native to Georgia, but with a few exceptions, they generally fall into one of those two families. If you know the basic identifying characteristics for a tree in the red oak family and its uses, it doesn’t really matter if it’s a Northern Red Oak, a Southern Red Oak, a Black Oak, or a Pin Oak. For practical purposes, they’re functionally the same. And they all have sharply pointed leaf lobes, shiny, leathery leaves, and dark gray, craggy bark. Another good example is the Aster family, which includes Liatris, Late Purple Aster, Goldenrod, Daisies, and Chicory. Although some are better for certain purposes than others, they all have some shared identifying characteristics and can be used in similar ways. To bring it back around to today’s plant, I knew that only members of the Mint family like Purple Deadnettle, Henbit, and Ground Ivy have square stems. And like Lyre-Leaf Sage, they are all edible, and useful as a tea for respiratory ailments. So even by not knowing the species, I knew I could safely eat this plant and use it medicinally in a pinch.
My point here is that if you’re new to wild edibles, it can be overwhelming. The Southern Appalachian ecosystem is a rich one. There are literally hundreds of trees, shrubs, herbs, forbs, and vines that serve an edible or medicinal purpose in a twenty mile radius of where I’m sitting right now. But the more you learn, the easier it gets. You start to recognize patterns, and get good at spotting distinguishing characteristics. Over time, fewer and fewer plants make you ask: “I wonder what that is?” So take in all you can. Read field guides, extension office resources, and writings of the old woodsmen. Watch videos. And most importantly, get out there and touch, feel, eat, and use this stuff. The knowledge base will come steadily in time. And it’s well worth it – there’s a whole world of food and medicine out there waiting to be unlocked. So get out there!