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GOING WILD WITH NATIVES: These Salvias May Be Our Garden Salvation!

By Susan Lewitt, for Let’s Talk Plants! June 2024.

White Sage, Salvia apiana, was used for many purposes including ceremonial and medicinal. Photo by Susan Lewitt.

These Salvias May Be Our Garden Salvation!

Before the Europeans came over to the Americas, the native tribes succeeded in living off the land for more than 12,000 years with just what the land and sea provided. They took advantage of the many native plants that surrounded them. That included some of the eleven Salvia species that occur in San Diego.

The Kumeyaay used White Sage, Salvia apiana, to make tea for coughs and chest colds and for poison oak reactions. The seeds were toasted and ground into flour. White Sage was used to mask human scent, which helped make their hunts more successful. Dried and burnt White Sage bundles were used for smudging in ceremonies. Cleveland Sage was also valued for the seeds that made seasoning, or that could be cooked into mush after toasting. The leaf tea of this plant helped with coughs, colds, and poison oak encounters. 

Black Sage, Salvia mellifera, a prominent native in San Diego. It is being visited by a native butterfly on the right. Photos courtesy of Calscape.

White Sage, a very significant native species, is naturally found in Chaparral, Coastal Scrub, Lowland Chaparral, Maritime Desert Scrub, and Southern Coastal Scrub. It will grow alongside of California Buckwheat, Eriogonum fasciculatum, Black Sage, Salvia mellifera, California Sagebrush, Artemisia californica, California Encelia, Encelia californica, Wild Hyacinth, Dichelostemma capitatum, Chamise, Adenostoma species, Penstemon species, Yucca species, several cactus species, and many annual wildflowers. White Sage supports caterpillars and several pollinators including the Bilobed Looper Moth, and the Alfalfa Looper Moth. It will adapt to a variety of soils and needs very little water once established. This shrub may reach 5’ tall and 8’ wide. It has a pleasant fragrance and will bloom in winter, spring, and summer.

Cleveland Sage, Salvia clevelandii, was used in cooking as a seasoning and more. Photo by Keir Morse.

Cleveland Sage, Salvia clevelandii, occurs in Chaparral and Coastal Scrub communities. It supports many native animal species including birds, bees, caterpillars, butterflies and moths. Companion plants for Cleveland Sage include Chamise, Adenostoma fasciculatum var. fasciculatum, Woolly Bluecurls, Trichostema lanatum, White Sage, California Buckwheat, Eriogonum fasciculatum var. fasciculatum, California Coffeeberry, Frangula californica ssp. californica, Toyon, Heteromeles arbutifolia, Lemonade Berry, Rhus integrifolia, Coastal Prickly Pear Cactus, Manzanita species, and Yucca species. Cleveland Sage likes full to partial sun and needs very little water once established. It does well in a variety of soils with medium drainage and will grow to 4’ tall and 8’ wide. This shrub has a pleasant fragrance, and flowers occur in spring and summer.

A third plant, Chia, Salvia columbariae, a member of the Salvia family, had many uses. The nutrient high seeds were eaten toasted or raw. The seeds could also be toasted and ground and then made into a drink with the addition of honey. The seeds were also used as part of a cleansing diet for the stomach, and intestines. The Kumeyaay practiced controlled burns, which was helpful to the Chia plant, a fire follower.

The Kumeyaay considered Chia, Salvia columbariae, to be very nutritious. Photos by Keir Morse.

Chia or Chia Sage, which is available as seed through CNPS SD’s online seed and bulb store, is an annual herb reaching up to 18” tall and about a foot wide.

It has a slight fragrance and blooms in the spring. Full sun, any kind of soil drainage and extremely low to very low water work best for Chia. It will support birds, native bees, caterpillars and pollinators. Its natural communities are Chaparral, Creosote Bush Scrub, and Foothill Woodland. It might be found with a wide variety of native annuals and perennials.

Sonoma Sage, Salvia sonomensis, is usually available at a couple nearby nurseries. Photos courtesy of Calscape.

Other Salvias that are native to the San Diego area include Hummingbird Sage, Salvia spathacea, Black Sage, Salvia mellifera, Purple Sage, Salvia leucophylia, Sonoma Sage, Salvia sonomensis, Thistle Sage, Salvia carduacea, Desert Sage, Salvia dorrii, Blue Sage, Salvia pachyphylla, and Hairy Sage, Salvia dorrii var. pilosa. Some of these Salvias, not currently carried by local nurseries, may only be seen when hiking in natural areas.

The strong fragrance of Purple Sage, Salvia leucophylia, attracts and supports birds, and insects including moths and butterflies. Photos courtesy of Calscape.

Out of the eleven Salvias naturally occurring in San Diego, the following are available at nurseries in the general San Diego area: White Sage, Black Sage, Cleveland Sage, Hummingbird Sage, Purple Sage, and Sonoma Sage. These Salvias make lovely additions to your garden and support many of the native fauna species. I hope in the future many of these lovely and valuable plants, which are not currently found in nurseries, become more readily available for landscaping. They are part of the local biodiversity, taking advantage of relationships between native flora and fauna that have taken hundreds, if not thousands of years to develop.

Hummingbird Sage, Salvia spathacea, supports hummingbirds and other birds, plus an assortment of other native fauna. Photo courtesy of Calscape.


References and Resources:

  • Calscape (

  • Ethnobotany Project, Contemporary Uses of Native Plants, Rose Ramirez & Deborah Small. 2015

  • “Kumeyaay and Native Plants”, Gerald Green, Kumeyaay Ipai Interpretive Center. Poway, CA 2015

  • Kumeyaay Ethnobotany, Shared Heritage of California, Michael Wilken-Robertson, 2018

  • Stan Rodriguez, PhD., President of the Kumeyaay Community College, El Cajon, CA 2024


Susan Lewitt is a member of the California Native Plant Society (CNPS), participating in their Native Gardening Committee, and their Conservation Committee.


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