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Ann Wright: Beautiful sages among us

Making water-wise plant choices

Traditionally known as a culinary herb, sage is the more common name for salvia, and with almost 1,000 varieties world-wide, it is the largest genus in the mint family. Plants in the mint family share common characteristics: opposing leaves, square stems and bilaterally symmetrical flowers. Salvias have a tremendous range of plant and flower color and size; their diversity spans a number of climates and habitats. Salvias can be found on almost every continent. Some varieties, with the most brilliant color palate, are found in the southwest U.S., extending down into Mexico and Central America. Many salvias are quite cold tolerant.

Of interest to our area, particularly during this current drought, is the salvia’s adaptation to an often-harsh climate, with hot, dry summers. Drought tolerance, in addition to the fragrant, lovely gray-green leaves and striking flowers are the traits of many salvias found in the Mediterranean regions. In the hottest areas, some salvias host muted silvery-green, hairy leaves that reflect the heat of the sun.

In a previous article about characteristics of drought tolerant plants, the Water Use Classification of Landscape Species (WUCOLS IV) project was described which evaluated the water needs of over 3,500 plants used in California landscapes, based on the process of plant transpiration – or the release of water from the plant. Using the WUCOLS IV as a guide, there are several varieties of salvia that fall into the category of “low” water use plants (https://ucanr.edu/sites/WUCOLS/Plant_Search/). Some that may be familiar are Sonoma sage (Salvia sonomensis and related cultivars), hummingbird sage (Salvia spathecea), and, Russian sage previously known as Perovskia atriplicifolia. This lovely native of western China, Pakistan and Afghanistan has a new name — Salvia yangii, and it is not, and I guess it never was, from Russia. Regardless of origin, Russian sage is a perennial which stands upright at two to three feet tall with gray-green leaves and lavender colored flowers. Blooming from mid to late summer, Russian sage is a haven for honey bees and other pollinators. Both hummingbird sage and Sonoma sage are perennial California natives and may be considered as ground covers — and, as are many salvias, pollinator-magnets.



Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii) is a very aromatic, evergreen shrub that can grow three to five feet tall, and has tall spikes of blue-violet flowers. There are a number of compact, shorter hybrids which also have striking violet-colored flowers. Autumn sage (Salvia greggii) is another evergreen shrub, native to southwest Texas and into Mexico. With narrow, light green leaves this salvia may grow two to four feet tall, and spread to around four feet. Flower colors are varied, depending on the cultivar, and include white, salmon, magenta and orange. This salvia grows best in sun with part shade or with afternoon shade in the hottest areas.

Salvias can be considered for a number of growing conditions – from dry beds and rock gardens, to containers. Salvias and related hybrids are particularly significant for planning a garden re-make. As many parts of the county begin mandatory water cuts because of the continuing drought, and as our summer temperatures hit record highs, it’s more essential than ever to be water-wise in our gardens. To help home gardeners plan for water-efficient landscape, join UC Master Gardeners of Nevada County for a workshop today: “Garden Makeover: Now More Important than Ever,” via Zoom from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. To access the Zoom link, go to our website at http://ncmg.ucanr.org/ . At this timely workshop, Master Gardeners will share how home gardeners can adapt garden practices so plants may thrive with less water. The focus will include, plant selection, irrigation, water-saving techniques such as mulching, and converting lawn to water-wise landscape. The workshop will be recorded and linked to our website for viewing later.



UC Master Gardeners of Nevada County are hoping to return to in person workshops at our Demonstration Garden in August and, at the Nevada County Fair (Aug. 11-15). We will have our tent at the Fair again this year, so come see us at our booth and bring your home gardening questions.

Ann Wright is a Nevada County Master Gardener

Hummingbird sage. Traditionally known as a culinary herb, sage is the more common name for salvia, and with almost 1,000 varieties world-wide, it is the largest genus in the mint family.
UC Master Gardeners of Nevada County
Russian sage.
Provided photo

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