By Linda Jones.
Sages are the workhorses of the native garden. Salvia, or sages, can provide attractive habitat, colorful blooms most of the year, and food for local wildlife—nectar for hummingbirds, native bees, bumble bees, butterflies, and moths, and seeds for insects, quail, lesser goldfinches, towhees, and other small birds. Native Americans also used them for food and for treating a variety of ailments. And best of all, they smell wonderful!
Habitats and Characteristics of California's Sages
Salvia is the largest member of the mint family, Lamiaceae, and cousin to basil, rosemary, thyme, lavender, and catnip. In California, there are nearly twenty native species of Salvia, and San Diego County is home to half of them. And because sages hybridize readily, there are many choices for your garden in addition to the native species.
Sages occur in a wide variety of habitats in California, with large populations in the coastal sage scrub and lower chaparral communities. Most prefer hot, dry conditions, but still manage to grow well near the coast.
Salvia species are drought tolerant, generally easy to grow, and tolerate various soil types (though most prefer well-drained soils). The perennial shrub species can live thirty years or more and grow up to six feet high with a broader spread, while the annuals only reach one or two feet. The local sages have two sets of leaves each year—larger, greener leaves during the wet season and smaller, grayer ones during the dry season. With a little summer water, you can prolong the stay of the larger leaves, but the plants do best when they are allowed to dry out for a period.
Native San Diego County Salvia Species
Munz's sage: February is typically when flowering starts for S. munzii, an endemic species of southern San Diego County and northern Baja California (see table for bloom periods). The flowers range in color from white to shades of blue, purple, and pink.
Cleveland sage: S. clevelandii is also endemic to San Diego, but with its many cultivars, it has become widespread and easily available. This is a great plant—it's very easy to grow (said by someone who is notorious for killing native plants) and blooms and blooms. I supplement it with a little water during the dry season, but it is a good low water plant. Prune it back after the first bloom and a second bloom is likely. Most of the sages grow best with pruning after the bloom. You can remove a good third of the plant, which will help shape and control its form.
White sage: S. apiana is a good choice in a place where you can see its white leaves at night. Sadly, it is being overharvested in the wild and shipped around the country as smudge bouquets and sachets. As a result, populations have been decimated. So grow some in your garden and help restore this lovely plant.
Black sage: S. mellifera is one of the most abundant plants in the coastal sage scrub community. Not considered to have a particularly nice growth form, it is, however, an important source of nectar for pollinators and seeds for birds, small mammals, and insects.
Chia: S. columbariae has become popular recently as one of the two sources for chia seeds (the other is S. Hispanica, native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala), which are rich in protein, omega-3 fatty acid, fiber, and calcium. It was also used historically by Native Americans, who would grind and use it in cooking. It is one of the annuals, most common in southern California from the coast to the mountains. Chia is generally grown from seed.
Other species native to San Diego County are thistle sage (S. carduacea), creeping sage (S. sonomensis), purple sage (S. leucophylla), wand sage (S. vaseyi), and desert sage (S. eremostachya). Most of the native Salvia are available in nurseries, as are dozens of cultivars.
You can see pictures of these and other sages at calscape.org.