Superb and spectacular sages

Look up the word “sage” in the dictionary, and the first definitions are typically those referring to a wise person or the culinary herb. But the word also applies to a group of ornamental plants well known and loved by gardeners around the world.

Sage plants belong to the genus Salvia, a word not to be confused with the similar but very different “saliva.” On the other hand, Salvia plants are beautiful garden performers worth salivating over! They’re long-blooming and fragrant, they attract a variety of insect pollinators and hummingbirds, and they’re attractive and low-maintenance.

The name Salvia is derived from the Latin word “salvere” — meaning to save — referring to the natural healing properties of many sages. (Always refer to reputable sources and consult your medical professional before using these or any other plants for medicinal purposes.)

Salvias are members of the mint family — Lamiaceae, pronounced Lay-mee-AY-cee-ee — and their close cousins include other fragrant plants such as basil, lavender, oregano, rosemary, and thyme. All plants in this family share distinctive characteristics: square stems; paired, simple leaves with aromatic oils; and two-lipped, tubular flowers. The small flowers are borne in whorls at the ends of the stems, and depending on the species, the blooms can be in tight clusters or spaced loosely along the stems.

Sages are a diverse group of plants, ranging from large shrubs to low-growing groundcover forms. Some are grown as annuals, but most are perennial plants that can be used as foundation plantings in landscapes. Most thrive in well-drained soils, and their water needs are generally low to moderate.

Salvia officinalis is the scientific name of common culinary sage. It’s a low-growing shrub that can do double duty in the garden as both an attractive landscape plant and an edible herb. Its flowers are rose/mauve to lavender in color, and its leaves can be used either fresh or dried. There are several types with variegated foliage for added garden interest, including one named Tricolor, with gray-green leaves edged in white and pinkish-purple.

If you’re considering planting sage in your garden, think beyond the edible kind. There are countless species and hybrids of ornamental Salvia, some better adapted to our Central Valley climate than others. My personal favorites — most of which need only an occasional summer watering and no fertilizer — are:

Hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea). This drought-adapted California native groundcover sage has earned its designation as a UC Davis Arboretum All-Star. It’s a favorite of hummingbirds, with large, deep-magenta flowers borne on sturdy spikes in winter and spring; cut flowering stems back to the ground when spent. The large bright green leaves have a mild fruity/minty scent, and the plant spreads by underground rhizomes. It’s good for dry locations with morning sun and afternoon shade, and is excellent when planted under oaks.

Mint bush sage (Salvia microphylla). This shrub is another Arboretum All-Star, and as the word “microphylla” suggests, it has tiny leaves, along with thin stems and delicate flowers that attract hummers and native bumblebees. There are many named varieties, including the popular ‘Hot Lips’, with its bicolor red and white flowers; ‘Pink’, with intensely pink blooms; and ‘Stormy Pink’, with light pink flowers that emerge from dark purple buds. The leaves of this sage species have a spicy-fruity scent, and the flowers appear almost year-round. Prune these plants back hard in winter to encourage plenty of new vigorous growth and blooms. 

Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha). These are large shrubs, up to 4 feet tall and 6 feet wide. Their long, narrow leaves are green above and grayish-white and fuzzy on the undersides. These sages are stunners when in bloom; their numerous long flowering spikes are covered in large, velvety, purple calyxes (bud coverings) from which the flowers emerge. The standard species has white flower petals; ‘Midnight’ has purple petals; and ‘Santa Barbara’ is a compact variety with vibrant violet petals. When these plants decline in the winter, cut them to the ground to renew and to control rangy growth.

Salvia leucantha at the Clovis Botanical Garden
(Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

Sierra San Antonio sage (Salvia x jamensis ‘Sierra San Antonio’). This sage is a cross between S. microphylla and S. greggi. It’s a long-blooming, small shrub (up to 1½ feet high by 3 feet wide) bearing peach- to cream-colored flowers with pastel yellow lips. It attracts bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds and is gorgeous when paired with blue flowering penstemons.

Limelight Mexican sage (Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’). The coloration of this sage is stunning, with deep bluish-purple flowers emerging from bright chartreuse calyxes. This plant has a relatively tall and narrow form, with deep green, triangular leaves. It needs moderate water, some fertilizer, and light afternoon shade to look its best in our area.

Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’ at the Clovis Botanical Garden (Photo by Kathy Ikeda)

White sage (Salvia apiana). Native to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts of Southern and Baja California, this plant is also known as sacred sage for its long-standing spiritual and medicinal use by many Native American tribes. It’s a tall, fast-growing shrub with large, smooth, fragrant, silvery-blue-green leaves and 5-foot-tall spikes of white flowers tinged with lavender. This plant’s natural pollinators include native bumblebees, hawk moths, and wasps. Sadly, white sage is disappearing from its natural habitat due to its growing popularity and unscrupulous over-collection. Grow it at home, but leave it alone in the wild! It’s another Arboretum All-Star.

Other excellent sages for Central Valley gardens are:

  • Winifred Gillman sage (S. clevelandii ‘Winifred Gilman’)
  • Autumn sage (S. greggii)
  • Creeping sage (S. ‘Bee’s Bliss’) 
  • Germander sage (S. chamaedryoides)

Try experimenting with several of these spectacular sages, and relish the results.

For gardening-related questions, call the UC Master Gardener office at 209-953-6112, or visit our websitehttp://sjmastergardeners.ucanr.edu/CONTACT_US/.

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