It is one of the flukes of Western gardening that fall is not a prelude to dormancy, but a second spring. As days shorten, many native plants, dormant during the inferno of summer, begin to bloom again to set seed before winter rains. Of all the plants that do it, autumn sage does it with a heart-stopping mix of ruggedness and grace.
There can be no pretense here of objectivity. If it ever came down to the impossible choice of naming a favorite plant, this might well be the one that would slip from my lips: autumn sage, or its botanical name, Salvia greggii, pronounced greg-ee-I, named for 19th century Western plant collector Josiah Gregg.
It fits every criterion a plant must have for inclusion in my garden: drought tolerance, sturdiness, beauty, food value (for me or birds or both), scent, and did I say beauty? Few plants open up the world of flower gardening, draw you into the garden and keep you there like Salvia greggii.
Originally it was native to Texas, Arizona and Mexico. According to Mike McBride, president of the Texas Native Plant Society, its wild habitat is in the Big Bend region of the Chihuahuan Desert, but it also occurs in southwestern Texas hill country and northwestern Texas brush country. Given a similar range of climates in Southern California, cultivated autumn sage grows well here and blends in beautifully with our native sages, particularly Salvia apiana. It has all the wildlife benefits they do, and no special needs.
When it comes to Los Angeles home gardens, it's often less finicky than many California natives. It accepts clay and withstands at least moderate watering with rare equanimity for desert natives. McBride says that tolerance might have evolved outside the plant's normal desert range, perhaps in hill country, where the normally sand-loving autumn sage adapted to what he calls "black clay," or very fine decomposed limestone.
For Southern Californians who want their gardens to support wildlife displaced by urban sprawl, autumn sage has an almost perfect profile. Deer avoid it, but butterflies and bees appreciate it, and there is no better hummingbird plant: They land on it fast and protect it aggressively. When you deadhead, expect to be dive-bombed and scolded by a bird as incredulous as you would be if a waiter attempted to whisk away an unfinished bottle of Hermitage La Chapelle '61. Rabbits are said to eat young nursery seedlings, so it's a good idea to protect them until they get some size, after which they will become unpalatable, thanks to their intense aromatics.
As is true of many salvias, the scent isn't in the flower, but in oils of the stem and leaf. It evolved to protect the plant from heat and deter deer, but it is irresistible to humans, somewhere between the scent of pines, mint and chaparral after the rain. Dave Fross, one of the founders of Native Sons Wholesale Nursery in Arroyo Grande, Calif., was so taken with it, he collected seeds in West Texas almost 20 years ago. "To me, it is the smell of the West," he says.
The color range found within the Salvia greggii species is, perhaps, the plant's greatest gift to gardeners. Starting with the wood and foliage, young branches can be reddish, but with age become gray. Leaves vary from bright medium green to olive. The leaf color is a boon for native gardens, which often need plants to connect the gray, blue and olive greens of the native leaf palette back to the brighter greens of woodland natives, as well as standard-issue imports such as box hedges and lawn.
In mixed beds, there is no better natural transition green from the silvers of artemisia, white sage and lavender to the darker greens of yarrow, Jupiter's beard and rosemary. Where you want shrubs to help with structure outside bloom season, autumn sage is a perfect match with low-growing junipers.
David Steinbrunner, a landscaper in Hunt, Texas, and a horticulturist out of Texas A&M, says if you study Salvia greggii closely, you can predict the color of the flower from the leaf. A lighter leaf signals a white or pink flower.
We know the plant primarily from its crimson-flowered, olive-leafed form, so much so that its common names include cherry sage. But in Texas, white and pink varieties have also been cultivated since the 1930s. Today, Salvia greggii come in dozens of cultivars and crosses, such as S. 'Nuevo Leon.' The colors range from lavender to purple to coral to light pink to hot pink to red, redder and reddest.
Some of these variations were, no doubt, the result of recessive genes suddenly asserting themselves in seedlings. Other times, seasonal changes seem to trigger variegation in flower color, says nurseryman Fross. The red and white variety 'Hot Lips,' he says, "goes all red for in-flower color three or four months, then back to bicolor during the warm season." He adds, "Don't ask me what that's about."
Variegation is viewed as such an unstable trait that in 2001, when Steinbrunner spotted a pink-and-white-flowered "sport" branch in his garden on a largely pink-flowering plant, nobody thought it would stay true when he took cuttings. "A lot of people, including some large growers, told me the chances were zero," he says. It not only stayed true, it is being grown commercially under the name Salvia greggii variety 'Teresa,' for his wife. It should arrive in nurseries next spring.
There is no shortage of color available now. Fross recommends throwing them into one big dizzying bed. The first time he saw it done, he says, "There was just this cacophony of red, pink and purple. That was one of the most stunning gardens I have ever seen."
What would be garish or look fake with another species works with Salvia greggii because of the gracefulness of the plant. A series of tiny buds blooms successively on slender flower stalks atop an arching bush. The tiny size of the flowers and the airiness of the shrub diffuse the color, so the impression is at once bright but delicate.
In the wild, the plant will flower in spring and autumn. Bloom can be extended from spring almost to winter by routine deadheading. With any other plant this would be a chore, but the intense aromatics make it so relaxing, you could almost charge stressed-out office workers to do it. To collect the seeds, drop the deadheaded stems into a shoebox, then shake out the seeds and tilt the box so they roll to the low end. Some may have learned the skill in college, with another sort of plant.
It takes a better gardener than I to grow autumn sage from seed, but Steinbrunner says the range of red flowers alone that you'll get from seedlings will be "just unbelievable." Plants will seed themselves too. "A lot of people weed them out by accident. No telling how many varieties we've plucked. The first leaf is an irregular shaped leaf — it doesn't look anything like a Salvia greggii leaf. After the second or third, then the leaf becomes standard," he says.
To promote bloom, McBride recommends taking autumn sages down by half every three years. Steinbrunner says to prune anytime you want, except winter, because moisture can cause rot, as with lavender. In my garden, pruning tends to be unnecessary because the dogs run through the plants. The ones they trample pop back with better forms than the ones I prune.
There's a reason it's called autumn and not winter sage. As rainy season approaches in December, flowering stops and the plant enters a growth spurt to prepare for spring bloom. As the spectacular nectar dries up, one way to keep bees around to work the citrus in January is to underplant autumn sage with the ice plant Aptenia cordifolia 'Red Apple.' You'll have to keep it under control, because it's a ground cover that grows so fast you can watch it, but it's an important winter food source for bees, and its reds and greens make surprisingly handsome foils for autumn sage.
If you plant autumn sage with natives, water as you would any California native: sparingly. But if you mix it with broad-leafed sages, such as S. 'Indigo spires,' it will tolerate weekly watering in dry season and occasional water in winter. But Fross pegs it as a masochist: "It looks best drought-stressed," he says.
In keeping with another shrubby herb, lavender, its life span is comparable to a moderate prison sentence — five to 10. After that, replace it.
As an herb, it lays claim to both the kitchen and physic gardens. "A lot of Mexican guys here in Texas use it as a medicinal herb," says Steinbrunner. "They say it's good for the intestinal tract." The flavor is mint-like. Texas-based garden writer Sally Wasowski exhorts us to cook with it, as we would oregano or European sage.
There is, it seems, no limit to this plant's charms.