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Seductive scent of the West

Autumn sage is famed for its heady aroma. But there is so much more: It's durable, deer-proof and, best of all, wildly colorful. And it can look even grander after the dogs trample it.

September 09, 2004|Emily Green | Times Staff Writer

It is one of the flukes of Western gardening that fall is not a prelude to dormancy, but a second spring. As days shorten, many native plants, dormant during the inferno of summer, begin to bloom again to set seed before winter rains. Of all the plants that do it, autumn sage does it with a heart-stopping mix of ruggedness and grace.

There can be no pretense here of objectivity. If it ever came down to the impossible choice of naming a favorite plant, this might well be the one that would slip from my lips: autumn sage, or its botanical name, Salvia greggii, pronounced greg-ee-I, named for 19th century Western plant collector Josiah Gregg.

It fits every criterion a plant must have for inclusion in my garden: drought tolerance, sturdiness, beauty, food value (for me or birds or both), scent, and did I say beauty? Few plants open up the world of flower gardening, draw you into the garden and keep you there like Salvia greggii.

Originally it was native to Texas, Arizona and Mexico. According to Mike McBride, president of the Texas Native Plant Society, its wild habitat is in the Big Bend region of the Chihuahuan Desert, but it also occurs in southwestern Texas hill country and northwestern Texas brush country. Given a similar range of climates in Southern California, cultivated autumn sage grows well here and blends in beautifully with our native sages, particularly Salvia apiana. It has all the wildlife benefits they do, and no special needs.

When it comes to Los Angeles home gardens, it's often less finicky than many California natives. It accepts clay and withstands at least moderate watering with rare equanimity for desert natives. McBride says that tolerance might have evolved outside the plant's normal desert range, perhaps in hill country, where the normally sand-loving autumn sage adapted to what he calls "black clay," or very fine decomposed limestone.

For Southern Californians who want their gardens to support wildlife displaced by urban sprawl, autumn sage has an almost perfect profile. Deer avoid it, but butterflies and bees appreciate it, and there is no better hummingbird plant: They land on it fast and protect it aggressively. When you deadhead, expect to be dive-bombed and scolded by a bird as incredulous as you would be if a waiter attempted to whisk away an unfinished bottle of Hermitage La Chapelle '61. Rabbits are said to eat young nursery seedlings, so it's a good idea to protect them until they get some size, after which they will become unpalatable, thanks to their intense aromatics.

As is true of many salvias, the scent isn't in the flower, but in oils of the stem and leaf. It evolved to protect the plant from heat and deter deer, but it is irresistible to humans, somewhere between the scent of pines, mint and chaparral after the rain. Dave Fross, one of the founders of Native Sons Wholesale Nursery in Arroyo Grande, Calif., was so taken with it, he collected seeds in West Texas almost 20 years ago. "To me, it is the smell of the West," he says.

The color range found within the Salvia greggii species is, perhaps, the plant's greatest gift to gardeners. Starting with the wood and foliage, young branches can be reddish, but with age become gray. Leaves vary from bright medium green to olive. The leaf color is a boon for native gardens, which often need plants to connect the gray, blue and olive greens of the native leaf palette back to the brighter greens of woodland natives, as well as standard-issue imports such as box hedges and lawn.

In mixed beds, there is no better natural transition green from the silvers of artemisia, white sage and lavender to the darker greens of yarrow, Jupiter's beard and rosemary. Where you want shrubs to help with structure outside bloom season, autumn sage is a perfect match with low-growing junipers.

David Steinbrunner, a landscaper in Hunt, Texas, and a horticulturist out of Texas A&M, says if you study Salvia greggii closely, you can predict the color of the flower from the leaf. A lighter leaf signals a white or pink flower.

We know the plant primarily from its crimson-flowered, olive-leafed form, so much so that its common names include cherry sage. But in Texas, white and pink varieties have also been cultivated since the 1930s. Today, Salvia greggii come in dozens of cultivars and crosses, such as S. 'Nuevo Leon.' The colors range from lavender to purple to coral to light pink to hot pink to red, redder and reddest.

Some of these variations were, no doubt, the result of recessive genes suddenly asserting themselves in seedlings. Other times, seasonal changes seem to trigger variegation in flower color, says nurseryman Fross. The red and white variety 'Hot Lips,' he says, "goes all red for in-flower color three or four months, then back to bicolor during the warm season." He adds, "Don't ask me what that's about."

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