Salvia species (sage) are well known in folk medicine throughout the world. In South Africa sage is used against fever and digestive disorders. Three closely related South African species (Salvia stenophylla, Salvia repens and Salvia runcinata) were investigated for their antioxidant (DPPH assay); anti-inflammatory (5-lipoxygenase and cyclo-oxygenase assays); antimalarial (tritiated hypoxanthine incorporation assay); antimicrobial (disc diffusion and micro-dilution assays) properties and toxicity profile (tetrazolium-based assay). The solvent extracts exhibited anti-oxidant, antimalarial and antibacterial and poor anti-inflammatory properties. The essential oils exhibited anti-inflammatory and antimalarial properties, but displayed poor anti-oxidant and antimicrobial activity. The extract of Salvia stenophylla and the essential oil of Salvia runcinata displayed the highest toxicity profile. Overall, Salvia runcinata displayed the most favorable activity of all three taxa tested with an IC50 value of 6.09 (anti-oxidant); 29.05 (antimalarial) and 22.82 mu g/ml (anti-inflammatory). Analytical procedures (GC-MS and HPLC-UV) were employed to generate chromatographic profiles for the essential oils and solvent extracts respectively. The HPLC analysis revealed the presence of rosmarinic acid in all three taxa. while carnosic acid was only present in Salvia repens and Salvia stenophylla. The GC-MS analysis showed that oils were qualitatively and quantitatively variable. beta-Caryophyllene was present in large amounts in all three taxa. Other components present include camphor, alpha-pinene and alpha-bisabolol. The results of the in vitro pharmacological activities provide a scientific basis to validate the use of these Salvia species in traditional medicine in South Africa. (c) 2005 Elsevier Ireland Ltd. All rights reserved.