Sages: perfect plants for California gardens

29 Apr

Sages (Salvia) are the perfect plant for sunny California gardens. There are 17 or 18 sages that are native to the state, where they tend to be found along the coast, in parts of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and into the upper desert. In the area of Los Angeles and San Diego, as much as a third of the vegetation may have once been sages, mixed with oaks, Tonyons, Ceanothus, California sagebrush and Rhus species.

Salvia is actually the largest genus of plants in the mint family, Lamiaceae, which includes several genera commonly referred to as sage. Salvia officialis, or common sage, is the one used in cooking, while Salvia apiana, White Sage, is the material of smudge sticks (White Sage is native to southern California, where whole hillsides of the plant have been ripped out to feed consumer demand for smudge sticks; bumblebees, the main pollinators of White Sage, have suffered as a result of this destruction of their natural habitat). Salvia divinorum, or Diviner’s Sage, is sometimes cultivated as a psychedelic drug, and it’s legality is under review in some states, and Salvia hispanica, commonly known as Chia, is popular among raw and natural food enthusiasts for it’s seeds which are high in protein and antioxidants. Salvia species are used as food plants by the larvae of several types of butterflies and moths, and are an important source of nectar for butterflies, bumblebees and wasps. They are beloved by hummingbirds, which will sometimes aggressively defend the sages in their territory from intruders.

In the garden, Salvia makes a colorful and low maintenance contribution, especially where drought tolerance and/or deer resistance are important. There are so many ornamental salvias to choose from – what follows are a few of my favorites:

  • Salvia ‘Hot Lips’ was first introduced into California by Richard Turner, who found it in Mexico and brought a cutting back to Strybing Arboretum in San Francisco. This unusual Salvia has red and white bicolor flowers. It grows 2-3 ft. tall, and to 6 ft. wide, and likes full sun.
  • Salvia subrotunda – Hummingbird’s Salvia – is native to the Iguaçu Falls region of Brazil and Argentina, where it was first collected and then brought to the Bay Area several years ago. It is extremely attractive to hummingbirds, which enthusiastically help it to reseed prolifically in Bay Area gardens. This Salvia grows 3-5 ft. tall, and bears long upright stems of bright scarlet flowers spring through fall.
  • Salvia chiapensis – Chiapas Sage – is native to the Mexican state of Chiapas. It has small, fuzzy bright pink flowers and glossy green leaves, and blooms nearly all year in the Bay Area. Unlike many sages it is not so drought tolerant – this one does best with regular water during the growing season.
  • Salvia confertiflora – Red Velvet Sage or Harvest Sage – is one of the larger species, growing quickly to 5-6 ft. in height, with stiff upright stalks of fuzzy deep red blooms in summer and fall. This showy sage likes rich, well-drained soil and is perfect as a back of border plant for perennial gardens. The large, dark green leaves are covered with soft, reddish brown hairs and the plant is attractive in or out of bloom.
  • Salvia patens – Gentian Sage – bears whorls of true blue 1-inch flowers summer and fall. It likes sun or part shade, and some water during the summer months. This Salvia is deciduous, so cut to the ground in winter for a beautiful summer bloom.

There are many more species of ornamental Salvia to choose from – for a great selection check out Annie’s Annuals and Perennials, a delightful nursery in Richmond that specializes in rare and unusual annual and perennial plants.

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