Getting to Know Lyre-Leaf Sage

Having fallen into disuse, this North American species is making a comeback thanks to some notable herbalists and a nod from the Herb Society of America.

Graceful, light-blue wildflowers border the roads and cover swaths of meadows in periwinkle, from the Mid-Atlantic to Missouri and from Florida to Texas. Known as “just a roadside weed” or invasive species, lyre-leaf sage has a lengthy history. A much-valued wild edible and medicinal plant of indigenous people, and a time-honored remedy in the southern folk traditions, this North American sage has been chosen by the Herb Society of America as the Notable Native Herb of 2018.

lyre leaf sage

Lyrata in the Garden

A beautiful, wild, flowering plant, lyre-leaf sage {Salvia lyrata} is part of the Lamiaceae {mint} family along with rosemary and oregano, and it’s closely related to garden sage {Salvia officinalsi}.

The only sage native to the United States, it has reportedly grown as far north as southern Connecticut but hasn’t been seen there for some time. Russ Cohen, Massachusets forager, educator, and author of Wild Plants I Have Known…And Eaten remarked that he has never knowingly encountered the plant during his extensive travels through New England. Bill Moorehead, consulting botanist and plant community ecologist in Litchfield, CT, clarified why lyrata may be rare in his state: “Salvia lyrata appears to have only ever been seen in Connecticut growing in one meadow. The latest Connecticut collections of it in the herbaria are from 1904.” He also notes that lyrata is now endangered in New York, and hasn’t been observed there since 1990.

Appearing delicate but actually quite hardy, lyre-leaf sage grows from a small basal rosette of eight-inch, dark green leaves. Young leaves are oval and hairy, later developing deep lobes that look similar to the shape of the lyre, a musical instrument, hence the plant’s distinct name. In some species, leaves have a burgundy or dark-purple trim. At least one {sometimes more} square, hairy stalks with occasional opposite leaves shoot up from the rosette and grow one to three feet tall. Alternating whorled flower buds develop on the stalk while it’s growing upward, and these bloom from the bottom to the top beginning in early April through June, depending on climate. Showy, elegant, one-inch tubular blossoms range from pale lavender-blue to deep violet and are a favorite of bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds that adore the pleasantly fragrant blossoms. The flowers consist of upper and lower “lips,” the lower being longer and making a perfect landing platform for bees and other pollinators. When flowers fade in fall, seed heads appear and the herb will reseed itself enthusiastically.

Lyre-leaf sage is a perennial and grows well in Zones 6 through 9. When planting, start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before the last hard frost. Transfer seedlings outdoors when they reach two to three inches high and the weather is continuously mild, planting 10 inches apart. Lyrata enjoys light, sandy, or medium loamy soils that drain well but can tolerate both dry and moist situations. It prefers full sun and open areas, though it will fare well in a little shade. The sunnier the spot, the deeper the flower color. And they really do add striking color to all gardens, but be careful; in some states, lyrata is considered invasive and will spread rapidly. In general, the herb tolerates heat and over-watering.

Lyrata through the Ages

Salvia lyrata is considered a wild edible and medicinal plant. Like its cousin garden sage, it also has uses in the kitchen. The entire aerial part of the plant can be prepared as food. The leaves have a mild mint flavor that goes well tossed raw in salads or cooked like spinach and combined with other wild greens. The young leaves provide the most tender flavor, but lyrata is edible throughout its growing season, and this includes the blossoms, which add an elegant touch to any dish. The seeds can be ground and mixed with flour to make breads.

In his 1753 publication Species Planetarium Vol 1, Swedish ethnobotanist Carl Linnaeus gave the name of Salvia lyrata to this herb after the Latin salvare, “to save,” and the Greek musical instrument the lyra or lyre, referring to the shape of the leaves. Its other common names include meadow sage, cancerweed, and cancer root.

Lyre-leaf sage served as a staple food and medicine long before the Europeans arrived in North America. The Native American tribes of the South and Southeast, most notably the Catawba and Cherokee, used the entire plant as a source of nutrition and as valuable medicine for myriad illnesses, a knowledge they shared with the early settlers.

The Catawba tribe looked to the root as a salve for skin irritations, sores, and the treatment of the dark-red or black “spots” of early skin cancer lesions. The story goes that the Catawba saw how the plant spread so rapidly through the fields and likened it to how cancer spreads in or on the body, giving it the name “cancerweed” and “cancer root.”

The native tribes made a poultice for insect stings by grinding the aerial parts of the herb. To remove warts, they would apply freshly bruised leaves to the affected area, replacing them with new leaves every 12 hours until the wart dissolved.

The Cherokee employed this herb in medicine far more, preparing the aerial parts as an infusion for coughs, colds, sore throats, as a diaphoretic to treat fevers, and to combat diarrhea {and, alternately, constipation}. Infused with honey, a syrup with lyrata leaves served as a treatment for asthma. Employed as a nervine and stimulant, the plant was administered as a general tonic to “weakly females,” possibly as a nervine for anxiety. This stimulant action was also recommended to people of a phlegmatic {calm but sluggish} disposition.

lyre leaf sage 3

Modern Medicine

Lyre-leaf sage shares some of the same medicinal attributes as garden sage, but with milder effects. Medicinally, we use the entire plant. Harvest the aerial parts when they’re in full bloom and the seeds when seed heads appear. Pull the roots in autumn.

It appears that, for generations, folk medicine has looked to lyrata for its potent astringent and antiseptic qualities. Its ability to induce sweating made it a go-to-remedy for fevers, and it also provided warming, carminative action.

But as mostly an oral tradition, much of folk medicine’s knowledge about this herb hasn’t been written down; in fact, the last books to mention lyre-leaf sage as a medicine were written almost 80 years ago, with the herb largely forgotten as a result. Thankfully, several wonderful herbalists of the Southeast are able to confirm its use in traditional medicine and shed some light on how it’s administered in modern herbal practices.

Herbalist and licensed massage and bodywork therapist Janet Blevins of North Carolina are well acquainted with salvia lyrata’s traditional benefits, including the use of a root salve to heal mild cuts, scrapes, burns, and irritations. She also mentions its use as a gargling infusion, made from the aerial parts, as a remedy for sore throats.

Alicia Wornicov, Tennessee herbalist and founder of Teva Rose Herbs, confirms that lyrata grows prolifically in the Southeast United States and shares how she uses this versatile herb. “Like other sages, this species contains antimicrobial and antiseptic properties. It is also a great astringent and mild expectorant, providing a well-rounded arsenal against allergies, colds, wet coughs, and sore throats.” Wornicov will combine it with nettles, red clover, elderflower, and goldenrod for a very effective seasonal allergy remedy. Her most recent use; “Just yesterday, I had a scratchy throat, and it seemed to be swelling a little, so I picked a few leaves,” she explains. “After chewing the leaves for about three minutes, I stopped clearing my throat as much and didn’t have to do anything else {to relieve it}.” In late summer, she and her family collect the dry seed pods. “We powder the seed and use it for its powerful drawing properties. Splinters, glass, toxins, infection, poison ivy – whatever needs drawing from the skin, this does a quick job of it.”

Alabama native Phyllis D. Light, MA, herbalist, and author of the recently published Southern Folk Medicine: Healing Traditions from the Appalachian Fields and Forest, has extensive knowledge and experience with lyre-leaf sage. “I use a considerable amount of it,” she explains. “I use {the aerial parts} for recovery after serious illness. It helps restore vital energy…and it’s also good to help modulate the effects of stress.”

Light also turns to the plant for allergies, coughs, colds, and sore throat. She, too, mentions a salve made from the roots, with a slight variation on the name’s origin; “It was called cancer root because the little root nugget and the rootlets attached look like a tumor.” As she explains, the salve was considered a folk remedy for early skin cancers and part of an all-purpose preparation with other herbs like calendula.

Salvia lyrata is a mild but effective folk remedy. To date, there are no known contraindications, but if you’re pregnant, nursing, or on medications, consult a professional before using or simply avoid it altogether. Try some of these recipes using this native herb.

Forager’s Cough Syrup

If you live in the Southeast, you’ll have a better chance of spotting this species in the wild. In this recipe, lyrata gets a little boost from mullein leaf, an effective anti-inflammatory, expectorant, and antiseptic. Elecampane also serves as an expectorant and a demulcent, relieving irritated mucous membranes. Its antitussive action suppresses coughs. Marshmallow root, a widely used demulcent and antiseptic, and wild cherry bark, another antitussive herb, provide soothing and expectorant relief, which is especially helpful for quieting persistent coughs and easing sore throats. Fresh is best but dried herbs will also work.

2 parts marshmallow root

1 part elecampane root

1 part wild cherry bark

3 parts lyrata leaves and blossoms

2 parts mullein leaf

Honey to taste

Start by decocting the marshmallow root, elecampane root, and wild cherry bark {using 2 ounces of herb per 1 quart of water}: place herbs and water in a pan, partly cover and simmer for 20-30 minutes or until the liquid is reduced by half. Remove from heat.

Next, to the hot mixture add in lyrata and mullein leaf {this will infuse the herbs}. Cover and steep for 15 minutes. Strain and reserve liquid. While still warm, add honey to taste. Let cool to room temperature, bottle, and refrigerate.

Syrup should last two weeks. If you’d like, add ginger root for warmth and/or valerian root or California poppy for night-time coughing.

Dosage: Take 1 full teaspoon three times a day. If you’re pregnant or nursing, check with a professional before using.

Wild Weed Tincture

This is an allergy remedy based on a recipe from Alicia Wornicov. Lemon balm is added for an extra boost of antihistamine and calming action. Angelica root decreases the number of antibodies released when allergies are triggered, reducing the histamines that cause symptoms. Horehound, a time-honored expectorant, relieves post-nasal drip. Use fresh herbs if available, but dried can work as a substitute.

2 parts lyrata leaves and blossoms

2 parts nettle

2 parts goldenrod

1 part lemon balm

1 part horehound

1 part angelica root

Fill a canning jar loosely with herbs. Cover with 100-proof vodka or raw apple cider vinegar to the top and cover {use a plastic cap}. Store in a cool, dark place for four to six weeks, shaking daily. Strain and bottle. Take 30 to 40 drops, three times a day. Do not use if you’re pregnant or nursing.

Lyre-leaf Sage Honey

Herbal honey is a delicious remedy for coughs, allergies, and sore throats. Dry-wilt fresh lyrata leaves and blossoms several hours or overnight {or use dried}. Fill a canning jar loosely with plant material {add lemon balm or thyme for extra flavor and antiviral action} and cover with raw local honey. Fill to the top and cover. Place the jar on a warm, sunny windowsill for a week, turning daily. After a week, bottle and refrigerate for the best shelf life.

Soothing Root Salve

Use this remedy for minor cuts, bruises, burns, and skin irritations. Lyrata root blends well with other skin healing herbs like calendula, echinacea root, plantain leaf, and yarrow.

Lyrata root, chopped

Olive oil {extra-virgin, first cold press}


In a double boiler, place your desired quantity of lyrata root and cover with oil, adding another one or two inches of oil above. Heat on low for one to two hours. Strain through cheesecloth and retain oil. Add oil back to a pot and heat on low. To each cup of oil add 1/4 cup of grated beeswax {or more for a firm salve}. Pour into small containers or a canning jar and store in the refrigerator.

Lyrata Leaf Tea

A mild lyrata sage tea is perfect for a simple infusion to ease a sore throat or as a calming evening beverage. Simply use 1 tablespoon per 8-ounce cup of boiling water. Steep 10 to 15 minutes. Sweeten with honey if desired. Drink one to three cups per day.

This multipurpose herb offers beauty in a garden, nutrition on your plate, and excellent medicine from root to blossom. Consider harvesting this North American native herb or planting your own.