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Native Plant Family of the Month: Salvias, or Sage Family

Activity of the Month: Plant!  Are you in the process of taking out your lawn?  Looking for more drought tolerant plants? or for ways to attract local pollinator birds and insects to your garden?  Fall is the time to put new plants in the ground, transplant plants, or replace plants that didn’t make it through the summer. Due to our Mediterranean climate, we can expect relatively “mild” (i.e. rarely snow, occasional frosts) mostly wet winters, the perfect environment to give new plants the best possible start.  With that in mind, we are highlighting the Salvia or Sage family this month, and many varieties of the sage family are native or naturalized to this area.  If you want to learn more about native sage plants, and the benefits they provide, keep reading!

Although there is some debate regarding which, if any sages are native to this watershed, we grow a few varieties in the native plant nursery, and use them in restoration and bank stabilization projects. Sages native to California that do well in this region include black sage (Salvia mellifera), hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea), purple sage (Salvia leucophylla), blue or Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii) and white pitcher sage (Lepechinia calycina).  Black sage is considered a “keystone species,” in that it is a species on which many other species, in its coastal sage community, depend. Its spiky flowers are pretty and vibrant.  It is also adapted to grow in sandstone, granite and serpentinite soils!  Cleveland sage is turning to seed this time of year, and the Dr. Seuss-like seed pods are beautiful. White pitcher sage is native to the central valley and Sierra foothills and is also endemic to California (it is native to this region only). Early Californians used an extract from the white pitcher sage leaves to treat fever and headaches.  The flowers of the white pitcher sage and all other sages are an important food source for butterflies and hummingbirds, and the seeds are an important food for quail and other birds. 

Sage plants are evergreen and perennial, and so do not need to be replanted each year.  They grow from two (2) to eight (8) feet tall, depending on the variety.  The flowers are highly aromatic and attract a variety of birds and insects. All sage species, like other species in the mint family (Lamiaceae) have square stems, and the entire plant is covered with hairs which makes them feel soft to the touch. Most sages prefer drier mixed chaparral habitats, dry shaded, well-drained soil, and once established, do not like much water. In nature, they like to grow under oak trees or other foliage, so look for a partly shady spot in your yard.

Sages are easy to care for, attract local pollinator insects, are drought tolerant, and prefer minimal water (once a month) once established.  Many sage varieties bloom from spring through the summer and fall, another advantage to using them in restoration projects and in your yard. The black sage blooms through the winter as well, providing critical food to bees and other insects, when most other plants are dormant.

There are many opportunities to purchase native (and other drought tolerant) plants in the next month, including many local seasonal sales (check our Facebook page for one coming up in the next week). Some local nurseries also carry native plants. I hope you can get outside and enjoy the fall cooler weather, and do some planting.