This study was designed to examine the in vitro antioxidant activities and rosmarinic acid levels of the methanol extracts of Salvia virgata, Salvia staminea and Salvia verbenaca. The extracts were screened for their possible antioxidant activity by two complementary test systems, namely DPPH free radical scavenging and beta-carotene/linoleic acid systems. In the first case, the most active plant was S. verbenaca (14.30 +/- 1.42 mu g mg(-1)), followed by S. virgata (65.70 +/- 2.12 mu g mg(-1)). S. staminae exhibited the weakest antioxidant activity in this test system of which IC50 value is 75.40 +/- 0.57 mu g mg(-1). In beta-carotene/linoleic acid test system, S. verbenaca extract was superior to the other extracts studied (inhibition value is 77.03% +/- 0.42). Antioxidant activities of BHT, ascorbic acid, curcumin and alpha-tocopherol were determined in parallel experiments. Activity of rosmarinic acid was also screened for better establishing the relationship between rosmarinic acid level and antioxidant activity for the plant extracts. According to the results obtained by spectrophotometric analysis and further supported by HPLC, S. verbenaca has the highest rosmarinic acid level with a value of 29.30 +/- 0.24 mu g mg(-1). Our results showed that the rosmarinic acid and its derivatives are more likely to be responsible for most of the observed antioxidant activities of Salvia species. (C) 2007 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.