Serving Up Some Sage

With their vibrant flowers and potent fragrances, native salvia plants are powerful backyard magnets for pollinators and other wild creatures

06-01-2007 // Doreen Cubie
Palamedes swallowtail on lyreleaf sage

FIRST DRAWN TO SALVIAS because of their brilliant colors and the wonderful scents of their leaves, Don Mahoney was hooked when he learned they were also important to pollinators. The horticultural manager for the San Francisco Botanical Garden, who is passionate about gardening for urban wildlife, loves to watch Anna’s and Allen’s hummingbirds flit among the dozens of salvias growing in his own California yard.

Many of the nectar-rich plants have funnel-shaped flowers tailor-made for the bills of hummers. Other species have shorter, wider blooms preferred by bees and butterflies. Mahoney sees goldfinches and other birds swarming over his plants too, looking for nutritious seeds.

Also known as sages, these members of the mint family are usually easy to grow, relatively free of disease and resistant to pests. They vary widely in size and shape. Many of the salvias commonly found in nurseries and garden centers are from other parts of the world, but with a little searching, you can find some of the 40 or so North American natives to entice wildlife into your backyard. (Check with a local native plant society or extension agent to determine which species will thrive in your habitat.) Here are some possibilities:

Lyreleaf sage (above), found from southern New England to Florida and west to Arkansas and Oklahoma, is the most common salvia in the East. It is a low-growing, light-shade-loving plant, with pale lavender flowers. This species self-seeds readily but the young plants are easy to pull up if unwanted. Left in place, they make a great ground cover.

Pitcher sage is widespread in the prairie states, growing in the wild from Colorado and Nebraska east to Kentucky. Its sky blue blooms brighten the grasslands from late summer through fall, pulling in butterflies and bees. It’s a tough plant, one that is hardy down to 10 degrees.

California is the hot spot for U.S. salvias, with 17 native species. Hummingbird sage is a favorite of David Fross, one of the coauthors of California Native Plants for the Garden and the owner of Native Sons Nursery in Arroyo Grande. “It’s a wonderful ground cover,” he says, pointing out that this red-flowered hummer magnet grows well under the shade of oak trees. Another native Fross likes is Cleveland sage, especially the cultivar Winifred Gilman. This small shrub, which prefers full sun, has dark blue flowers and burgundy stems. “Hummingbirds and bees are always on it,” says Fross. Black sage and white sage are two more California natives to try.

Autumn sage, native to the Chihuahuan Desert, flowers throughout the summer and fall and is one of the best salvias for attracting hummingbirds. It can grow three feet high and three feet wide. Arizona sage, another southwestern native, is a creeping ground cover with indigo blue flowers. Cedar sage, a compact perennial with bright scarlet blooms, is found from Arizona into the Edwards Plateau in Texas. Desert sage, also known as Great Basin blue sage, is more widespread. It ranges from the southwestern states north to Idaho and Washington.

If you do decide to grow salvias, plant them in a location where you can easily watch the wildlife that is drawn to them. In fact, many of the smaller sages make good container plants. Put a few of them in pots and you’ll lure butterflies and other creatures right to your deck.

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