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Sage, the West's soulful savior

Don't overlook salvia, not only water-hardy and low-maintenance but bright blooming, aromatic and uniquely suited to the California landscape.

November 21, 2009|By Emily Green

Many gardens go without sage in California, but at the cost of soul. Sage is to the West what lavender is to France.

Sage -- or, in botanical terms, salvia -- has it all: Its pungent aromas contain the signature scent of the Western chaparral. The silvers, grays and greens of its foliage anchor the local Craftsman color wheel, and the long-running show of flowers comes in a spectrum of white to pink to mauve to scarlet to purple to indigo to sky blue.

Many sages have long had medicinal and culinary applications, but for modern Californians, they're a balm to the eyes. A felt-like quality to the foliage, combined with a loose-branching habit, allows sage to diffuse rather than reflect even the harshest midday sunshine.

Sages do not need fertilizer and, in fact, shrivel at the suggestion. Few other plants attract more pollinators to the garden. But one attribute above all these should make Western and Mediterranean sages not just emblems of our past but also powerhouse plants of our future: They need little water.

This age-old adaptation to dry conditions explains in part why watery gardens have underused the plants. The leaves become blighted and roots rotted when the plants are put within the range of sprinklers.

A less remarked problem: how to gauge size when planting. All plants look small in 1-gallon pots, but our best performing garden sages can run from 6 inches to 6 feet tall when mature. The trick is picking the right sage for the right spot.

Some notes on the size and habit of selected sages suitable for Southern California:

Low growing

Salvia spathacea, also called hummingbird sage or pitcher sage. This is the basset hound of the genus. Common in the Santa Monica Mountains, its large, fleshy leaves appear from woodland mulch with rains, soon followed by large autumn and spring flowers in shades of magenta. Because hummingbird sage is rhizomatic, meaning it spreads through its root system, it can be separated and spaced according to your needs in the autumn. This means one 1-gallon plant eventually can fill a bed -- a boon to landscapers on a budget. Left alone, it will spread. Dry gardeners allow it to shrivel back to nothing in summer, but in irrigated beds, foliage and flowers may persist through summer.

Salvia sonomensis, or creeping sage or Sonoma sage. It starts low and stays low, but single plants can branch out as much as 3 to 4 feet in diameter. Although geographical studies (and the name) indicate the native range is northern, Sonoma sage can flourish in the Los Angeles basin with little supplemental water. It's a fine companion plant for mallows.

Medium size

Salvia greggii, or Texas sage and autumn sage. It tops out at about 3 feet tall, and when pruned during dry season, it can be kept to about 3 feet in diameter. Because Texas sage is native to areas in the Southwest that get summer monsoons, it can tolerate more water than some California natives. This makes it a good choice for a low hedge around roses, whose foliage and flowers it compliments and whose blooming cycle it echoes with a poignant late autumn flush. The scarlet flowering cultivars are most common, but some varieties are dirty pink or white.

Salvia officinalis, or common kitchen sage. It does well -- arguably better -- when freed from the herb garden and released to a drier site. Native to the Mediterranean, this is the classic food plant whose leaves do so much fried in oil with pasta. As an ornamental, it will reach about 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide and produce repeated flushes of purple-blue flowers throughout the year.


Salvia clevelandii, or Cleveland sage. It looks an awful lot like Salvia sonomensis in a 1-gallon nursery pot, but after a year in the ground, this one will be well on its way to 4 to 5 feet tall while the other will be hugging the ground. Cleveland sage is our native son -- above all other salvias, inherently right for Southern California. That said, its adaptation to our dry climate has made it one of the hardest plants to transfer to irrigated gardens. It prefers good drainage, but if you resist watering it in the summer, it can withstand clay. The reward will be the most richly scented leaves and vivid indigo blooms of all sages. It partners well with the lower-growing Sonoma sage and can be used as a loose hedge. Put it where you will brush up against it.

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