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In the Native Garden: Colorful California Salvias Plus a Cousin

First posted on Jun 17, 2014

In the Native Garden: Colorful California Salvias Plus a Cousin

Native plants, including California's many indigenous sages, are like the boys or girls next door who were overlooked until outsiders discovered their good looks and other fine attributes.

For the longest time, native species didn’t get respect in home gardening -- a sizeable oversight considering that California alone has about 7,000 native plants according to the California Native Plant Society (CNPS). Natives are roughly defined as species that were growing in America before European colonization.

Shunning Local Species
Historically, early Americans had little time or money for ornamental gardening. Once we did have the wherewithal, the tendency was to recreate European gardens containing non-native plants familiar from homelands. Americans didn't realize the landscaping potential of many New World native species until they saw them growing as exotic species in European gardens.

This is still the case with sages in the Americas, where many plants don't make it into horticultural production until modern day plant explorers collect them for development outside the plants’ homelands.

Ecofriendly Solutions
Fortunately, an increasing number of nurseries and professional landscapers are promoting the use of native plants. This keeps the plants from facing extinction and provides ecofriendly solutions to landscaping challenges such as:

  • Little water or lots of it;
  • Mild temperatures or extreme seasonal shifts from hot to cold;
  • Acid-to-alkaline variations in soil chemistry; and
  • Difficult Soils, such as ones high in clay or sand.

Planting native species in home gardens does more than improve the looks of the landscape. It supports local ecosystems by providing food and habitat for small wildlife, including birds, bees, insects and small mammals. In turn, these visitors keep unwanted pests, such as mosquitoes, under control. Some help pollinate plants.

Another benefit of native plant gardens is that due to needing less fertilizer or none at all, they create less water pollution. Also, as CNPS notes, over time, indigenous species develop defenses against local pests and diseases. This means that less toxic pesticides and herbicides are necessary.

Aside from growing in the wild, native species nowadays often are used in landscaping hardscrabble lands, such as the shoulders of freeways and highways. They are also stars in easy-care home gardens.

California Native Salvias and a Mysterious Cousin
Growing conditions and native plants vary from one region of the nation to another. Unlike Florida, which needs sages that can tolerate extreme rainfall in the spring and summer, California has a Mediterranean-type climate with moderately wet winters and extremely dry summers.

Flowers by the Sea cultivates hardy, drought-resistant California Salvias that are native to a broad swath of the West Coast ranging from Northern Baja to Southern Oregon. This area is referred to as the California Floristic Province and has a mild, Mediterranean climate characterized by wet winters and dry summers.

The California natives detailed below are all drought resistant and many tolerate heat. They are well suited to waterwise, xeriscapic landscapes, including dry gardens in which plants must survive despite almost no supplemental watering.

Most of these species need full sun while others love or at least tolerate partial shade. All need soil that drains well. They range from short, creeping groundcovers to herbaceous shrubs that reach up to five feet tall and are arranged according to color. The mysterious cousin is Lepechinia fragrans, better known as Island Pitcher Sage, which is bi-colored. One last thought before we roll out the choices: All of these plants are deer resistant.

Cedros Island Sage (Salvia cedrosensis) Zones 9 to 11.

  • Deep violet-blue flowers with silvery bracts
  • Silvery mint, hairy foliage
  • 12 to 18 inches tall, 18 inches wide
  • Full sun

This summer and fall bloomer is ideal as a groundcover, container plant or border edging. Although it loves full sun and dry soil, it is native to an island off the coast of Baja that is occasionally foggy. So it may enjoy some light misting on occasion.

Celestial Blue Sage (Salvia x 'Celestial Blue') Zones 7b to 11.

  • Royal blue-to-purple flowers
  • Green-gray foliage, menthol fragrance
  • 60 inches tall and wide
  • Full sun

Celestial Blue is a chance hybrid of California Blue Sage (S. clevelandii), California Rose Sage (S. pachyphylla) and possibly California Purple Sage (S. leucophylla). It's fragrant and beautiful yet tough, blooming throughout the heat of summer on the driest of slopes. Expect butterflies, honeybees and hummingbirds.

Dara's Choice Creeping Sage (Salvia 'Dara's Choice') Zones 8 to 11.

  • Violet-blue flowers with purple-green bracts
  • Yellow-green, bumpy foliage
  • 18 to 24 inches tall, 96 inches wide
  • Full sun

Wind and lean soils are no deterrent to this vigorous, creeping groundcover. Dara's Choice is likely a Black Sage (S. Mellifera) hybrid, so it is fragrant and does well in neglected parts of the landscape. It blooms in spring and summer and is attractive to honeybees as well as hummingbirds.

Santa Rosa Island Sage (Salvia brandegeei) Zones 7 to 9.

  • Lavender-tinged blue flowers
  • Dark green, bumpy foliage
  • 36 to 48 inches tall, 36 inches wide
  • Full sun

This softly mounding, fragrant sage is native to Baja as well as Santa Rosa Island in Southern California's Channel Islands. It blooms in winter and spring, attracting honeybees.

Bi-Colored Lavender
Island Pitcher Sage (Lepechinia fragrans) Zones 9 to 11.

  • Lavender and white bicolored flowers with lime-green bracts
  • Silvery green, velvety foliage
  • 36 to 48 inches tall, 36 inches wide
  • Full sun to partial shade

Blooming from spring into fall, Island Pitcher Sage is a butterfly favorite. It can tolerate drought, but prefers regular watering. Also, although it prefers rich soil, it can tolerate lean conditions.

Bee's Bliss Sage (Salvia 'Bee's Bliss') Zones 8 to 11.

  • Lavender flowers
  • Silvery-green foliage
  • 24 inches tall, 96 inches wide
  • Full Sun

Short and spreading to 8 feet, Bee's Bliss is an excellent groundcover that flowers from winter into spring. Honeybees and hummingbirds love it.

Black Sage or Honey Sage (Salvia mellifera) Zones 8 to 11.

  • Pale lavender-to-white
  • Dark green foliage
  • 48 to 60 inches tall, 48 inches wide
  • Full sun

Honeybees and hummingbirds are drawn to this fragrant sage summer into fall. It is ideal for dry landscapes and tolerates a broad range of soils. Our strain is hardy to at least 20 degrees F.

Dry Earth Black Sage (Salvia mellifera 'Terra Seca') Zones 8 to 11.

  • Pale lavender to white flowers
  • Dark green foliage
  • 24 inches tall, 60 inches wide
  • Full sun

Shorter than its parent species, this variety of Black Sage is only 2 feet tall between its foliage and flower spikes. Spreading wide, it makes a fine groundcover that attracts honeybees and hummingbirds as it blooms spring into summer.

Cleveland Sage or California Blue Sage ( Salvia clevelandii 'Whirly Blue') Zones 8 to 11.

  • Lavender flowers with deep purple-green bracts
  • Greenish-gray foliage
  • 60 inches tall and wide
  • Full sun

Cleveland sages are known for their round clusters of miniature flowers that appear to be a single flower until inspected more closely. This one has deeper lavender flowers than the others and blooms winter into spring. Taller than most Clevelands, it is a colorful background plant.

Cleveland Sage or California Blue Sage (Salvia clevelandii 'Winnifred Gilman') Zones 8 to 9.

  • Lavender flowers with lavender bracts
  • Greenish-silver foliage
  • 48 inches tall and wide
  • Full sun

Similar to all Cleveland Sages, Winnifred Gilman is powerfully fragrant and attracts pollinators when blooming from winter into spring. It is a good height for borders and short screens.

Silver Cleveland Sage or California Silver-Blue Sage (Salvia clevelandii 'Deer Springs Silver') Zones 8 to 11.

  • Lavender flowers with lavender bracts
  • Greenish-silver foliage with very silver undersides
  • 48 inches tall and wide
  • Full sun

This is a super heat-tolerant Cleveland Sage that was found in the Deer Springs area of Northern San Diego County. It blooms in summer, so it can feed butterflies, honeybees and hummingbirds when other Clevelands are done flowering.

Grey Musk Sage (Salvia x 'Pozo Blue') Zones 8 to 9.

  • Lavender-to-violet flowers
  • Bright green foliage
  • 36 to 48 inches tall, 36 inches wide
  • Full sun

Use this relative of Cleveland Sage -- also known as California Blue -- in tough soils, on banks and in areas where watering is difficult or undesirable.It blooms for a full month in the spring.

Muntz's Sage (Salvia munzii) Zones 8 to 11.

  • Light lavender flowers with brown-to-burgundy bracts
  • Olive green foliage
  • 48 inches tall and wide
  • Full sun

Native to San Diego and Baja, this sage loves warm, dry gardens, but is widely adaptable.

Vicki Romo White Sage (Salvia apiana x clevelandii 'Vicki Romo') Zones 8 to 11.

  • Pale lavender flowers
  • Whitish-green foliage, older leaves turn purple in summer
  • 48 to 60 inches tall, 60 inches wide
  • Full sun

This is a hybrid of Sacred White Sage (S. apiana), which blooms winter into spring, and the summer-to-fall bloomer Black Sage (S. mellifera). Vicki Romo splits the difference, blooming spring into summer, attracting honeybees and hummingbirds.

Giant Spreading California Purple Sage or Giant Spreading California Gray Sage (Salvia leucophylla 'Amethyst Bluffs') Zones 8 to 10.

  • Amethyst purple flowers
  • Gray-green, velvety, rumply foliage
  • 72 inches tall and wide
  • Full sun

Collected close to the ocean near Santa Barbara at Point Sal, this variety of S. leucophylla handles howling winds and serious heat. It flowers winter into spring, attracting butterflies as well as honeybees and hummingbirds.

Spreading California Purple Sage or Spreading California Gray Sage (Salvia leucophylla 'Point Sal Spreader') Zones 8 to 10.

  • Purple flowers
  • Gray-green, velvety, rumply foliage
  • 24 to 36 inches tall, 72 inches wide
  • Full sun

First, you can enjoy the hummingbirds and honeybees that love the nectar of this fine groundcover when blooming winter into spring. Then the songbirds arrive for its tasty seeds. Another plus is that it tolerates salt spray.

Rose Red
Hummingbird Sage or Pitcher Sage (Salvia spathacea) Zones 8 to 11.

  • Rose flowers with rosy green bracts
  • Velvety, bright green foliage
  • 24 to 42 inches tall, 24 inches wide
  • Full shade to full sun

The scepter-like flower spikes of Hummingbird Sage are a rosy-red glory from winter into spring, feeding hummingbirds that winter over in mild climates.

Topanga Hummingbird Sage or Pitcher Sage (Salvia spathacea 'Topanga') Zones 8 to 11.

  • Rose flowers with burgundy and green bracts
  • Velvety, bright green foliage
  • 24 to 36 inches tall, about 120 inches wide
  • Partial to full shade

All Hummingbird Sage plants spread by underground runners. This one is particularly vigorous; one plant can spread 10 feet or more if it likes the growing conditions. During bloom time from winter into spring, hummingbirds are constantly buzzing about.

Sacred White Sage (Salvia apiana) Zones 8 to 11.

  • Tiny white-to-lavender flowers
  • Whitish-green, deeply fragrant foliage
  • 36 to 60 inches tall, 36 inches wide
  • Full sun

Although this sage is a native of the Southern California chaparral, our strain is well adapted to the moist, coastal environment of our farm in Northern California. Sacred White Sage primarily is grown for its foliage, which often is used for smudging ceremonies in which the leaves are burned to release fragrant smoke.

Starlight Sage (Salvia x 'Starlight') Zones 8 to 11.

  • White flowers
  • Silvery green foliage
  • 48 inches tall and wide
  • Full sun

Honeybees enjoy the tiny flowers of this fragrant sage from winter to spring. A hybrid, it is a shorter than both its parent plants -- Sacred White Sage (S. apiana) and Black Sage (S. mellifera).

Yellow Hummingbird Sage or Yellow Pitcher Sage (Salvia spathacea 'Avis Keedy') Zones 8 to 11.

  • Lemon yellow flowers with bright green bracts
  • Velvety, bright green foliage
  • 24 to 42 inches tall, 24 inches wide
  • Partial shade to morning sun/afternoon shade

Yellow sages are rare in general. This one has flowers that bloom from winter into spring and turn white as they age. It has sticky, fragrant leaves and does well in the dry shade of trees.

Questions Are Welcome
There you have it: Our parade of tough yet lovely California natives to help make your landscape more colorful, waterwise and easily sustainable.

Please feel free to write or call if you have any questions about fitting native or xeriscapic plants into your gardens. As always, we're here to help you make your yard -- and the world -- a more beautiful, ecologically better place whether one plant at a time or by dozens.

Edited Dec 25, 2020 04:00 PM
Alicia Rudnicki for FBTS


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