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Native Salvias and Artemisias

By Mary Anderson , Master Gardener

Some very useful plants in the native garden are the salvias and artemisias. While not closely related—salvias are in the mint family and artemisias are in Asteraceae, or the sunflower group—they share common habitats and even common names. Artemisia tridentate is more commonly known as Desert Sagebrush or Big Bush Sage. Another thing they have in common is excellent deer resistance.

Many salvias come from the coastal scrub community, but are hardy in our foothill gardens. Others live in the chaparral bordering the deserts of southern California. One form of creeping sage, Salvia sonomensis, is native to our foothills.

Salvia is a very widespread and diverse genus, but all share the characteristics of fragrant foliage, paired opposite leaves on a squarish stem, and two-lipped flowers that are favored by bees and hummingbirds. The leaves are textured, and in many heat-adapted forms appear felted and whitish. They may be perennials or shrubs, but all tend to look woody and tired after the long dry season and benefit from heavy pruning. Some summer water is tolerated, but too much will shorten the life of the plant.

Fragrant blue sage, Salvia clevelandii, is one of the best for gardens. Usually about three feet tall, with a spread to five feet, the leaves are a gray-green that whitens as summer progresses. Showy blue to blue-purple flowers are borne in whorls on flower spikes. They are excellent for drying. Commonly available forms are “Whirly Blue,´ ‘Winifred Gilman´ and ‘Aromas.´ The fragrance of this plant is clean, like a sweet desert morning.

‘Bee´s Bliss´ is a low dense form, a chance hybrid identified at the U.C. Santa Cruz botanical garden. It is very garden worthy, forming a dense foot-tall spreading mat, with stems rooting as they spread. Ten-inch spikes of lavender flowers appear mid-spring. This is a good “down the bank” sprawler. It can be grown completely dry, but expect quite a lot of summer leaf drop. With good drainage, it accepts summer watering. I have found the native creeping sage difficult in garden situations, but this cousin is indestructible.

Salvia mellifera ‘Terra Seca,´ or black sage, is another low form. The leaves are deep green, wrinkly and exceedingly strongly scented, with flower spikes a very pale purple. In contrast, Salvia apiana, or white sage, has large grayish-white oval leaves and very tall flower spikes. It is borderline hardy here but a striking plant to try in a south-facing, protected site.

Sandhill sage, Artemisia pycnocephala, is a low subshrub, forming a tight mound of soft woolly white foliage. The flower spikes are scraggly and best removed, and it can use hard pruning to keep it tidy. But no other plant quite makes the lovely fuzzy mound that this one does.

California Sagebrush, Artemisia californica, is a coastal plant with very finely textured grey-green foliage and a pleasant scent. It is useful in dry shade, cascading over rocks and an excellent foil for taller, darker-leafed shrubs like ceanothus or carpenteria.

Desert sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata, dominates vast areas of high desert from the eastern Sierras through the Great Basin and to the Rockies. Extremely cold and heat tolerant, it grows slowly and needs to be treated with patience. It resents summer water, but can be quite attractive sited against a large rock. I need it in my garden for the fragrance, which puts me immediately back in memory to rafting trips and hikes in the Canyonlands.

These plants are a must for the gardens of folks who complain that Bambi eats everything they plant. These are some plants that Bambi will not touch. Some of these distinctive plants will be available at the CNPS fall plant sale on October 15th, 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. in the WestAmerica Bank parking lot on Highway 108 in East Sonora. Members of the California Native Plant Society will be able to assist you in choosing the variety best for your site.

See you at the CNPS sale and see you in the garden.

Mary Anderson, a Calaveras County Master Gardener and owner of Lost Hills Nursery, has spent the last 25 years getting to know California native plants on her 10-acre property and propagates many native plants from the seeds of her ‘mother plants´. As one of the original members of the Sierra Foothills Chapter of the California Native Plant Society she shares her wonderful knowledge of native plants at the twice-yearly Native Plant Sale. Come meet Mary on Saturday, October 15th and let her inspire you to plant natives in your garden.

Some very useful plants in the native garden are the salvias and artemisias. While not closely related—salvias are in the mint family and artemisias are in Asteraceae, or the sunflower group—they share common habitats and even common names. Artemisia tridentate is more commonly known as Desert Sagebrush or Big Bush Sage. Another thing they have in common is excellent deer resistance.

Many salvias come from the coastal scrub community, but are hardy in our foothill gardens. Others live in the chaparral bordering the deserts of southern California. One form of creeping sage, Salvia sonomensis, is native to our foothills.

Salvia is a very widespread and diverse genus, but all share the characteristics of fragrant foliage, paired opposite leaves on a squarish stem, and two-lipped flowers that are favored by bees and hummingbirds. The leaves are textured, and in many heat-adapted forms appear felted and whitish. They may be perennials or shrubs, but all tend to look woody and tired after the long dry season and benefit from heavy pruning. Some summer water is tolerated, but too much will shorten the life of the plant.

Fragrant blue sage, Salvia clevelandii, is one of the best for gardens. Usually about three feet tall, with a spread to five feet, the leaves are a gray-green that whitens as summer progresses. Showy blue to blue-purple flowers are borne in whorls on flower spikes. They are excellent for drying. Commonly available forms are “Whirly Blue,´ ‘Winifred Gilman´ and ‘Aromas.´ The fragrance of this plant is clean, like a sweet desert morning.

‘Bee´s Bliss´ is a low dense form, a chance hybrid identified at the U.C. Santa Cruz botanical garden. It is very garden worthy, forming a dense foot-tall spreading mat, with stems rooting as they spread. Ten-inch spikes of lavender flowers appear mid-spring. This is a good “down the bank” sprawler. It can be grown completely dry, but expect quite a lot of summer leaf drop. With good drainage, it accepts summer watering. I have found the native creeping sage difficult in garden situations, but this cousin is indestructible.

Salvia mellifera ‘Terra Seca,´ or black sage, is another low form. The leaves are deep green, wrinkly and exceedingly strongly scented, with flower spikes a very pale purple. In contrast, Salvia apiana, or white sage, has large grayish-white oval leaves and very tall flower spikes. It is borderline hardy here but a striking plant to try in a south-facing, protected site.

Sandhill sage, Artemisia pycnocephala, is a low subshrub, forming a tight mound of soft woolly white foliage. The flower spikes are scraggly and best removed, and it can use hard pruning to keep it tidy. But no other plant quite makes the lovely fuzzy mound that this one does.

California Sagebrush, Artemisia californica, is a coastal plant with very finely textured grey-green foliage and a pleasant scent. It is useful in dry shade, cascading over rocks and an excellent foil for taller, darker-leafed shrubs like ceanothus or carpenteria.

Desert sagebrush, Artemisia tridentata, dominates vast areas of high desert from the eastern Sierras through the Great Basin and to the Rockies. Extremely cold and heat tolerant, it grows slowly and needs to be treated with patience. It resents summer water, but can be quite attractive sited against a large rock. I need it in my garden for the fragrance, which puts me immediately back in memory to rafting trips and hikes in the Canyonlands.

These plants are a must for the gardens of folks who complain that Bambi eats everything they plant. These are some plants that Bambi will not touch. Some of these distinctive plants will be available at the CNPS fall plant sale on October 15th, 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. in the WestAmerica Bank parking lot on Highway 108 in East Sonora. Members of the California Native Plant Society will be able to assist you in choosing the variety best for your site.

See you at the CNPS sale and see you in the garden.

Mary Anderson, a Calaveras County Master Gardener and owner of Lost Hills Nursery, has spent the last 25 years getting to know California native plants on her 10-acre property and propagates many native plants from the seeds of her ‘mother plants´. As one of the original members of the Sierra Foothills Chapter of the California Native Plant Society she shares her wonderful knowledge of native plants at the twice-yearly Native Plant Sale. Come meet Mary on Saturday, October 15th and let her inspire you to plant natives in your garden.