Sage advice


Some are pale and sway like debutantes. Others are clowns, with an in-your-face brightness that shouts, "over herd" Sage (Salvia) comes in a dizzying myriad of shapes, sizes, and colors. What they have in common--besides DNA--is a long season of bloom and a remarkable ease of care. Test your sage IQ with our quiz, then discover which of these unsung heroes are right for your garden.
1. What is sage?

A. An annual bedding plant with shocking red flowers on stiff, upright stems

B. A perennial that comes in flowers of every color, usually on loose, wavy stems

C. Those dark flecks in the Thanksgiving stuffing

D. All of the above

Answer: D

You've seen the annual bedding plant, scarlet sage: It's planted in parks, public gardens, and gas stations across the country. And it's the rare herb garden that doesn't contain culinary sage. The perennial sages are a wildly ornamental group that flower in some of the reddest reds, the deepest purples, and truest blues found in nature, as well as white, pink, lavender, and even yellow. They're drought-tolerant once established, and many are cold-tolerant, as well. No matter what your climate, there's a perennial sage for your garden.
2. Which USDA Plant Hardiness Zones are suitable for growing sage?

A. Zones 9 and warmer

B. Zone 8

C. Zones 7 and colder

D. All of the above

Answer: D

Zones 9 and warmer have the climate to grow those heat-loving sage varieties that originate in Mexico and Guatemala. And if you are lucky enough to live in Zone 8, congratulations! You live in the heart of sage country. You can grow literally hundreds of types of perennial sages.

If you garden in Zone 7 or colder, you'll find that some of the most ornamental species are hardy for you. Grow the more tender types as annuals, or in containers, where it is easy to provide the temperature and conditions they need. One sage survival tip: If you grow a type that's at the limit of its hardiness zone, don't cut back the stems in winter, says Debby Sheuchenko of Lazy S'S Farm in Barboursville, Virginia.

"For salvias grown on the 'edge of hardiness,' one of the tricks we've found, particularly for those with hollow stems, is that they survive winter better if they aren't cut back until spring," says Sheuchenko. "Those hollow stems just funnel rainwater right down deep in the crown. Plus, uncut stems 'catch' and collect leaves around the stems, which insulates them over winter. Also, laying wide, flat rocks over the roots gives them extra warmth and will prevent heaving of a new planting."
3. What growing condition does sage require above all else?

A. Good drainage

B. Good drainage

C. Good drainage

D. All of the above

Answer: Take your pick.

"All salvias--all 1,000 of them--want good drainage," says Betsy Clebsch, author of A Book of Salvias. "There are no exceptions."

The sages in Clebsch's California garden enjoy "perfect drainage." To achieve this, she uses sharp edge rock from a quarry--the size varies, with the larger pieces about the size of a quarter. Clebsch mixes this gravel in with the soil when she plants. Some gardeners use lava rock.

Also important are friable soil and good air circulation. And while a few species tolerate light shade, most require full sun.
4. What kind of wildlife is attracted to sage? (Choose all that apply.)

A. Bees

B. Butterflies

C. Hummingbirds

D. Deer

Answer: A, B, and c

Sage flowers are even more attractive to wildlife than they are to people. Bees and butterflies, including monarchs and giant swallowtails, find them irresistible. They are also magnets for hummingbirds, which are attracted not only to the tubular blossoms on the red-flowered types, but to other flower colors as well.

Virtually all sages have aromatic foliage. The source of the fragrance in their leaves is a volatile oil that deer, rabbits, and many insect pests don't like but that humans usually find pleasing.
A Sage for Every Garden

With so many to choose from, it's easy for sage decision paralysis to set in. First decide on the flower color. Then consider the size of the space, and choose a variety that won't outgrow its location or overwhelm its neighbors. Here are some of our favorite sages and the best ways to use them.
For containers: Lyre leaf sage (Salvia lyrata)

Lyre leaf sage is native to the eastern United States. It grows only a foot high, so it's an excellent choice for a low groundcover in moist soil or in containers, where its pretty rosettes of leaves and lavender-blue flowers can be seen up close. In addition to green leaf forms, there are cultivars with deep red leaves, including 'Burgundy Bliss' and 'Purple Volcano.' Goldfinches and other birds eat the seeds.

Lyre leaf sage is fuss-free, requiring only good drainage, full sun to very light shade, and water. Plants started from seed bloom the first summer. It is hardy in Zones 5 through 8.
For the coldest climates: Pitcher sage (S. azurea azurea and S. azurea grandiflora)

Pitcher sage is the hardiest native salvia. Both the eastern variety, azurea, and the slightly larger-flowered western variety, grandiflora, bear 3-foot stalks of medium to deep blue flowers. These appear all summer and into fall.

Pitcher sage grows best in full sun. It tolerates soils of low fertility and, once established, withstands drought. It grows rambunctiously and perennializes in Zones 3 through 8. For more compact bloom and a tidier appearance, cut pitcher sage back in late spring and midsummer.
For tall fall color: 'Phyllis Fancy' Mexican bush sage (S. leucantha hybrid)

"'Phyllis Fancy' gets 7 feet tall in a season and flowers for months," says Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina. This variety begins producing foot-long blue-purple flower stalks in September and continues until frost. Grow it in full sun. Hardy in Zones 7b to 9.
For small spaces or herb gardens: Dwarf culinary sage (S. officinalis minumus)

Growing only a foot tall by about 2 feet in diameter, dwarf culinary sage has every bit of ordinary culinary sage's potent flavor, just packed into a smaller, neater, evergreen clump of silvery leaves. Like its relative, it produces fragrant blue-purple flowers that bloom in early spring at the same time as chives and thymes. Happy in full sun and a dryish spot, dwarf culinary sage is hardy in Zones 5 to 11. It's a good sage for containers.
For dried flowers: 'Blue Bedder' mealy-cup sage (S. farinacea)

Texas native mealy-cup sage bears beautiful blue summer flowers carried on strong, upright stalks--perfect for drying. To dry, cut the flowers while they are fresh, remove the leaves, and hang the stems upside down in a shady, airy place.

Grow mealy-cup sage in full sun. Plants reach 2 to :3 feet tall and tolerate a hot site and/or moist soil if it is well drained. Perennial in Zones 7 to 10.
For edible flowers: Pineapple sage (S. elegans)

Pineapple sage, a tender native of Mexico, has bright green pineapple-scented leaves that can be used fresh or dried for tea. Its mid- to late-summer flowers of dazzling orange-red are edible as well as pretty. Use fresh in a salad or candy them. Hummingbirds particularly like this one. It's also a good choice for containers.

Perennial in Zones 8 to 11, pineapple sage grows a shrubby :3 to 4 feet in full sun to very light shade. A golden-leaf form, 'Golden Delicious,' makes an unforgettable statement in the summer garden.
For colorful contrast: 'Red Neck Girl' forsythia sage (S. madrensis)

This favorite of nurseryman Tony Avent is a big girl, growing 7 feet tall. In summer, the burgundy-winged stems contrast with fuzzy, silvery green leaves. Then in September and October, large butter-yellow flowers appear. 'Red Neck Girl' struts her stuff in full sun in Zones 7b to 10.
For easy-care gardens everywhere: 'Caradonna' sage (S. nemorosa)

'Caradonna' is as adaptable and carefree as it is pretty. Give it normal, sandy, or even clay soil in a dry or moist, well-drained spot in full sun, and stand back. It swiftly develops into a 2-foot mound of gray-green foliage that reaches 30 inches tall. Spikes of royal purple flowers appear in summer. Cut back after blooming to rejuvenate foliage. Heat-tolerant once established, it is hardy in Zones 3 to 10.
For hot, dry gardens: giant-flowered purple sage (S. pachyphylla)

This California native, also known as Mojave sage, takes drought in stride. Growing as much as 3 feet wide and high, "it has aromatic, nearly evergreen foliage and long-lasting, beautiful flowers that attract butterflies," says Pat Hayward, executive director of Plant Select in Fort Collins, Colorado. Not fussy about soil, including clay, this sage requires a hot, full-sun location in Zones 5 to 9.

Find more sage varieties, attractive companion plants, and more growing tips at

High Country Gardens, 800-925-9387, Las Pilitas Nursery, 805-438-5992, Lazy S'S Farm Nursery, Plant Delights Nursery, 919-772-4794,

PHOTO (COLOR): Below left: Mexican bush sage (S. leucantha); right: forsythia sage (S. madrensis): opposite: mealyoup sage (S. farinacea).

PHOTO (COLOR): Below left: clary sage (S. sclarea turkestanica); top right: Jim sage (S. clevelandii); below right: common sage (S. officinalis); opposite: 'Caradonna' sage (S. nemorosa).

PHOTO (COLOR): Opposite: giant-flowered purple sage (S. pachyphylla); left: Salvia forskaohlei; below: mountain sage (S. regla).


By Carole Ottesen

Photographs by Saxon Holt

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