Driving home from NC beaches, you may come across a sea of purple. Beautiful fields filled with flowering plants dot the sides of roads headed to the coast. These fields of flowers are not simply to look pretty, nor are they volunteer wildflowers. Rather, they are an upcoming crop for NC farmers. The flowering crop is clary sage.
Clary sage has roots (no pun intended) dating back to the Middle Ages. Used for its calming properties and benefits to the skin, it is not to be confused with the sage you may find in your kitchen spice rack. Clary sage, also known as salvia sclarea, is an herb that is found in many household items for its fragrance. Think dish soap, perfume, and detergent. It first must be extracted, though.
This is where a company in Bertie County comes in. Avoca Inc. is the largest extraction facility in North America for sclareol. They have been in the business since the 1960’s. They take clary sage and produce sclareol which helps fragrances have a longer life in items like soap and perfume. Avoca contracts with many farmers to grow a certain amount of acres. This is appealing for many farmers because so many other crops have huge swings in prices. Clary sage is more stable.
Planted at the end of summer (August) the perennial grows until winter. At this point it becomes dormant until warmer weather hits again. By Late May, early June, the blooms are in full force. Blooms can be purple, pink, or white, depending on the variety. Harvesting begins mid to late June.
The smell the crop produces is obvious. It makes sense, since it is in the fragrance industry. A special harvester is used that cuts up the plants into 1 inch cubes much like silage. The flowers have the highest oil content, but the entire plant is used. The harvest is sent to Avoca where they will extract throughout the year. Here is a video of harvesting:
Avoca contracts with over 120 farms, there are over 25,000 acres being devoted to growing clary sage in eastern North Carolina. North Carolina is definitely a major player in growing clary sage.
I was super excited to see all of the purple fields on the way home from the beach. So excited, I made Alec pull over on the side of the road so I could jump a ditch and take pictures of sage in the setting sun.
If you happen to see the purple (or white/pink) fields in North Carolina, know that they are much more than flowers. They are a farmer’s crop. So, roll down the windows to stop and smell the sage.