Unlike basil, chives, thyme, and mint, savory is a much less familiar herb for many people I know. Others are even completely unaware that 2 types are commonly used in the kitchen. In this article, I’ll help you differentiate summer savory and winter savory!
Summer savory and winter savory differ in terms of 1) appearance, 2) life cycle, 3) taste, 4) common uses, and 5) plant hardiness. Between the two, summer savory is typically preferred in cooking due to its milder and sweeter flavor. However, these herbs can be used interchangeably for most recipes and share similarities such as propagation methods.
For some people, it’s not that important to differentiate between these two most common savory species. However, for people with really sensitive taste buds, the difference between the two is drastic. So it’s best to learn how to distinguish them from each other!
Although summer savory and winter savory closely resemble each other, they have slight differences in their 1) flowers, 2) leaves, and 3) stems.
Belonging to the same genus, it makes a lot of sense that summer savory (Satureja hortensis) and winter savory (Satureja montana) resemble each other.
If you place them beside each other and look at them from far away, you might have trouble telling them apart—especially if they are of the same height. However, if you look closer, it’s much easier to spot the differences between them!
Despite having similar-looking blossoms, summer savory flowers are usually white, pink, and light purple while winter savory flowers may be white, pink, purple, or blue.
If you’ve never seen a flowering savory plant—of pretty much any specie—in person before, then it will definitely be hard to tell which is which!
Even I have difficulties at times, especially when they’re unlabeled in nursery shops or garden centers. You see there’s basically no difference in how their flowers look.
Both summer savory and winter savory kind of look like tiny violet flowers. Unlike violets though, savory flowers are tubular and very small—usually no bigger than 1 in or 2.5 cm!
Summer and winter savory flowers could either grow along a stem forming flower spikes or develop in a round cluster at the top of a stem like a lollipop.
It’s also common to see both plants producing pink and white flowers, but winter savory blooms can also come in shades of blue or purple. Summer savory can grow tiny pale purple flowers as well.
Check out other gorgeous blooms in our article on flowering herbs!
Summer savory has hairy coppery gray-green leaves whereas winter savory has stiffer and shiner dark green leaves. However, both have narrow lanceolate leaves.
Now, if you’re not familiar with lanceolate leaves don’t worry! It’s deceptively simple.
Lanceolate leaves simply refer to leaves that are narrow oval-shaped leaves that taper on both ends, which most Satureja plants have.
But to distinguish one lance-shaped leaf from the other, closely check its color.
Most summer savory plants have primarily grayish-green leaves. At times though, they can have a brownish or coppery tint to them. They’re also bigger, rounder, and hairier.
Compared to that, winter savory leaves are darker in color. They also have little to no hair, giving them a glossier feel and shinier look. Besides that, they’re thinner but tougher.
Even more interestingly, winter savory leaves can stay green in winter. More specifically, they are semi-evergreen in cooler regions.
Mature summer savory plants have reddish-purple square stems. Conversely, winter savory stems start green, becoming more brown and woody as the plant ages.
Overall, summer savory and winter savory plants grow to about the same maximum height under ideal growing conditions—up to 18–24 inches (45–60 cm).
It will take summary savory plants 1–2 years to reach such a height. Meanwhile, it could take up to 5–10 years before winter savory plants reach such a height.
The stems of a summer savory plant are covered with fine white hairs that may look like powdered sugar. In terms of color, they are a mix of green, purple, and red—some would argue burgundy, even.
By contrast, winter savory stems are a blend of green and brown. As they age, they develop a deeper brown color and become much woodier unless they are pruned.
Pro Tip: Keep winter savory stems 6–12 inches (15–30 cm) tall to prevent them from turning tough and woody. Doing so also promotes the growth of new stems.
2. Life Cycle
Unlike winter savory, the short-lived summer savory can only either be annual or biennial. Winter savory, however, is a perennial plant.
A summer savory plant, sadly, doesn’t live for a long time. For the most part, they are only grown for 1 growing season before finally dying back on their own once the first frost comes.
Pro Tip: Have a continuous harvest of summer savory by growing a few plants about 1 month apart starting from spring. This will let you get a good yield until fall.
If you’re planning to grow a savory plant that can last you several years of aromatic and tasty leaves, go for the winter savory.
The dwarf winter savory shrubs are perennial counterparts of summer savory plants.
Delve deeper into this topic in our article on perennial vs annual herbs!
Even though they grow relatively dormant in winter, many experts consider them to be hardier than summer savory—but I’ll talk more about this later on!
Although they are both somewhat reminiscent of thyme, sage, mint, and pine, summer savory has a mild, citrusy, and sweet undertone. Oppositely, winter savory has a stronger spicy, peppery, and bitter flavor.
Most people seem to prefer summer savory over winter savory as the latter has a more overwhelming flavor. Sure—summer savory is also bitter and savory. But only faintly.
Its flavor profile is predominantly characterized by sweetness and tangy citrus notes. This is why summer savory is commonly the one used for creating those bottles of dried savory.
This is also a common ingredient for making herbes de Provence, a herb mix used typically in France, and cretonade, a thick poultry spread—at times used for dressing meats—that’s perfect when paired with bread. Some people also use it to brew teas or create desserts.
By comparison, the overpowering winter savory is best added to savory dishes—from fresh salads to fish and seafood dishes. They’re especially great in bean dishes.
Pro Tip: To make winter savory less bitter, cook it with the dish for a long time rather than using it raw or dried.
Nevertheless, you can use them to replace each other. To substitute winter savory, use more or less twice as much summer savory. Alternately, use only about half of the amount of winter savory for a recipe that calls for summer savory. Then, add more if necessary.
Essential Oils & Flavor: Summer Savory vs Winter Savory
Essential oils found in summer savory include 38% carvacrol, 33% p-cymene, and 21% γ-terpinene resulting in a citrusy thyme flavor. In contrast, winter savory has 65% carvacrol, 16% γ-terpinene, and 4% p-cymene giving it a spicier and woodier taste.
Considering how summer savory can have 3–7.5 more essential oil than winter savory, you might think that it has a stronger flavor. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case.
Different studies have estimated the total essential oil content of summer savory and winter savory to be 3.2–4.5% and 0.6–1.4%, respectively.
But if we were to look more closely into the different oils found in each plant, we can see that there is a clear difference.
|Essential Oil||Summer Savory||Winter Savory||Flavor Profile|
|α-Pinene||0.80||0.50||Fresh, earthy, minty, piney, sweet, woody|
|β-Pinene||0.80||0.94||Dry, piney, resinous, woody|
|α-Phellandrene||0.20||–||Citrusy, herbal, minty, peppery, spicy, woody|
|α-Terpinene||2.20||2.80||Bitter, herbal, lemony, woody|
|p-Cymene||32.20||4.65||Citrusy, fresh, spicy, woody|
|Limonene||–||0.45||Fresh, lemony, minty, piney, sweet|
|1,8-Cineole||–||0.54||Minty, piney, spicy|
|(E)-β-Ocimene 1||0.50||–||Citrusy, floral, herbal, sweet, warm, woody|
|γ-Terpinene||21.65||16.33||Bitter, herbal, lemony, woody|
|Terpinolene||0.06||–||Fresh, citrusy, piney, sweet, woody|
|Linalool||0.08||–||Citrusy, floral, fruity, sweet, woody|
|Terpinene-4-ol||0.09||0.87||Bitter, citrusy, earthy, herbal, woody|
|Carvacrol||38.0||65.80||Spicy, thyme, woody|
|Carvacrol acetate||0.03||–||Herbal, spicy|
|(E)-β-caryophyllene||0.02||2.20||Dry, clove, spicy, sweet, woody|
|Germacrene D||–||0.70||Spicy, woody|
For instance, winter savory contains almost double the amount of carvacrol that summer savory has. This can explain why it tastes spicier and woodier. Moreover, summer savory has more oils with a sweet and citrusy flavor such as linalool and terpinolene.
4. Common Uses
Aside from its culinary use, summer savory also has medicinal and aromatic uses. Winter savory, however, is more commonly only used for culinary purposes.
Despite not having proven its efficacy during that time, summer savory has been used since the olden times to relieve and treat conditions like colic, eye issues, or deafness.
It was once claimed to have aphrodisiac effects as well. But I have yet to see any study supporting this idea.
Their purported benefits are supposedly thanks to the carvacrol and thymol content of summer savory, which I have already mentioned previously.
Because of such essential oils, it is also a good element to add to potpourris to help your room smell amazing. Some even use it for aromatherapy.
Winter savory, on the other hand, is rarely used for anything else other than cooking. It’s especially great for making gamey meats taste more palatable.
Recent studies, however, show that we should also explore the health benefits of this plant outside the context of culinary arts.
5. Plant Hardiness
The summer savory plant can is hardy to zones 2–11, however, it will die with frost. A winter savory plant can thrive for several years in zones 5–11.
Frankly, I was first puzzled as to why summer savory was hardy to more zones than winter savory considering how it fairs better with warmer temperatures.
With a little more thinking though, I realized that it’s due to their life cycle as well. So you can basically grow summer savory in any state in America from spring to fall but once the first frost comes, you’ll have no other choice but to kiss it goodbye.
You won’t have to deal with this if you’re growing winter savory because it can survive through the coldest winter months of zones 5a and 5b. Then it will resume its rapid growth when spring comes.
I even heard of one case where it was successfully cultivated in zone 4. But if you’re going to attempt this in an area with even colder winters, I would suggest either protecting it with a plant cover or bringing it indoors during winter.
7 Similarities Between Summer Savory and Winter Savory
Summer savory and winter savory are similar in terms of 1) origin, 2) culinary use, 3) light requirement, 4) bloom period, 5) pests, 6) diseases, and 7) propagation.
Like I said in the beginning, summer savory and winter savory are bound to have several similarities since they are closely related plants from the same genus. Read on to find out more!
Many claims that summer savory and winter savory are native to Southern Europe or the Mediterranean Region.
However, their existence can be broadly traced back to not only Europe but also Africa and Asia. This could explain why they can thrive in various soils and climates.
2. Culinary Use
Both summer and winter savory are largely known as culinary herbs as well. This is even though they are used in other industries and fields as well.
I would also say that many people are not aware of this as other similar-tasting herbs such as oregano, thyme, and sage, are substantially more familiar to most people.
3. Light Requirement
If you want your summer savory and winter savory plants to flourish, make sure that they get at least 6 hours of full sun during their active growing seasons.
Just remember that once fall ends, your winter savory plant can survive with only about 4 hours of light exposure as it will be dormant until spring returns.
4. Bloom Period
You can expect a stunning show of vibrant flowers from either summer savory or winter savory throughout the summer months.
What’s even better is that it’s also possible for winter savory to pop out colorful blooms in the cooler winter months.
Neither summer savory nor winter savory is known to experience extensive infestations and damage from pests.
Discolored blades? Discover the causes and solutions in our article on brown lemongrass!
Most Satureja plants, including summer savory and winter savory, are not typically impacted by bacterial, viral, or fungal plant diseases.
Having said that, overwatering such plants will inevitably lead to root rot as waterlogged soil will suffocate their root system—no matter how well-established it may be.
To propagate savory plants—be it summer, winter, or any other species—home gardeners can choose from a variety of easy methods!
Such plants can be propagated on relatively cool summer days through stem cuttings and root divisions. But propagation by seed should be done early in spring to allow for ample growth and maximize yield before winter.
Does summer savory reseed itself?
Summer savory is a plant capable of reseeding with little to no human intervention. Under ideal growing conditions, this herb can naturally come back each year. Just note that it is not always the most reliable way of propagating this plant.
Is winter savory healthier than summer savory?
There is currently no detailed study comparing the nutritional values of summer savory and winter savory so it is uncertain whether one is healthier or both have comparable values. However, both are known to contain fiber, vitamins like vitamin C, and minerals like iron.
Summary of Differences Between Summer and Winter Savory
Summer and winter savory may belong to the same genus but they also have their differences. They can be physically differentiated from each other, specifically based on their flower, leaf, and stem colors.
Other than that, summer savory is grown as an annual or biennial herb in zones 2–11. It has a subtly sweet and citrusy thyme flavor and aroma, making it great for mild-tasting dishes. But it is also commonly used for its medicinal and aromatic properties.
Meanwhile, winter savory can grow as a perennial shrubby herb from zones 5–11. Its flavor profile is also a much more complex combination of thyme, pepper, spice, and mint, among other things with a prominent bitterness when raw. As such, it’s typically used to counteract the strong gamey taste of some meats.
- “Satureja hortensis” by n/a in The Royal Horticultural Society
- “Satureja montana” by n/a in The Royal Horticultural Society
- “Satureja hortensis” by n/a in N.C. Cooperative Extension
- “Satureja montana” by n/a in N.C. Cooperative Extension
- “Savory” by the Tiny Banquett Committee in Hamilton College
- “Comparison between Essential Oil Content and Compositions of Winter (Perennial) and Summer (Annual) Savory” by R. Omidbaigi, Shaban Rahimi, and Sh. Kazemi in ResearchGate
- “Summer Savory: From the Selection of Traditional Applications to the Novel Effect in Relief, Prevention, and Treatment of a Number of Serious Illnesses such as Diabetes, Cardiovascular Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Cancer” by Rafie Hamidpour, Soheila Hamidpour, Mohsen Hamidpour, Mina Shahlari, and Mahnaz Sohraby in the National Library of Medicine