pierre laszlo

Salvia sclarea (Labiaceae)

Plant of the month (©Pierre Laszlo, all rights reserved)
Salvia sclarea (Labiaceae).

It is a close relative of Salvia pratensis, described in another entry in this series. It is known in English as clary sage. 
The Latin name sclarea came from the Greek sklêros , σκληρός, "hard", that one also finds in the word sclerosis. As for the name Clary, it brings back to mind Désirée Clary, Napoleon’s first love before he met his first wife, Joséphine de Beauharnais ; whom he then married off to a fellow-general, Bernadotte, the future King of Sweden. Mildred Clary (1931-2010), during my adolescent years, was a personality on the French State radio and television: initially a lute player, she produced and presented series devoted to ancient music, illustrated from recordings or live performances, which she would narrate with a delightful British accent. 
Before I turn to clary sage the plant, a word of caution is necessary. Even though I will refer to numerous commercial products with their brand names, no advertising whatsoever is meant — only self-advertising, that will come at the very end. 
A biannual herbaceous plant, rather tall (up to 1.6 m upon cultivation), it shows the square section stem characteristic of the Labiaceae. Towards its top, it bears glandulous hair producing essential oils and, at the top, a large candelabra-like flower head, with white to purple flowers. Like other plants in the sage family, it is pollinated by honeybees. Flowers are very attractive to carpenter bees, such as Xylocopa violacea.
The leaves are the main reservoir of the essential oil. This oil has antalgic, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, antimicrobial and cytotoxic properties.
The plant originated in Asia Minor and was brought to the Middle East and Mediterranean Europe. My first view of it was about 1960 a cultivated field in Courbons, a hilltop village near Digne, in the Provence. It is indeed cultivated in France, Hungary and Bulgaria.
The plant was cultivated in France — at least since the time of Charlemagne (end of the VIIIth-beginning of the IXth century) — primarily for its essential oil, needed by the perfume industry. This continues to be the case, the oil is an ingredient in many perfumes. To cite just a few :  Azzaro Pour Homme - Bvlgari Aqva Pour Homme - Cacharel Pour Homme - Chevignon Heritage For Men - Versace Pour Homme - Tommy Hilfiger Summer 2010 - Chanel Egoïste Platinum - Yves Saint Laurent Kouros - Courrèges Amérique - Ralph Lauren Lauren - Yardley English Lavender - … In short, fragrances for men and classic perfumes all use it. 
At the very beginning of my career, I used nuclear magnetic resonance to determine the structure of sclareol, one of the ingredients (1-7 %) in the essential oil. This diol molecule with a CH=CH2 vinyl group belongs to the family of diterpenes.