Under sage's spell

Times Staff Writer

I wasn't shopping for plants that day last summer, but for terra cotta pots. In fact, I had taken an oath of abstinence from plant buying. Only professional curiosity demanded that I tour the salvia section of Marina del Rey Nursery, the part with the most glorious flowers. There it was, next to the lavender, my new obsession.

The tag identified it as a Salvia clevelandii, or Cleveland sage. The cultivar type bore the endearingly old-fashioned name "Winnifred Gilman." It had fuzzy gray-green leaves and was in the last stages of what had clearly been a spectacular flowering. Arching cinnamon-colored stems each carried one, two, three successively smaller woody whorls. Each of these amounted to a crown of tiny calyces, each bearing slender violet-blue flowers, the shape that hummingbirds like.

I bought it. At home, the resident hummingbird already was following me as I pulled it from the car and was on it as soon as I set it down in the driveway. It might have been the flower that alerted the bird so instantly, but I think it was the scent of the leaves. The perfume stored in the foliage of this plant is so potent that it can infuse a garden, and even creep in a house and tantalize dinner guests. One can only guess what signals it sends to hummingbirds.

To imagine the scent, start with the citric zing of a freshly squeezed lemon, ultra fresh, before oxygen has soured it. Hold that smell. Now think of the sweetest, purest smell of a new rose. Mix that with the lemon. Now add the scent of pines. Combine all three. Now add the merest touch of musk, as if it were vermouth in a martini. That's it. That's Cleveland sage. Sharp, clean, sweet, unique.

I already knew that it's not uncommon for California's hardiest chaparral plants to have high aromatics. It's a byproduct, evidently, of their glandular systems, which produce a kind of botanical engine coolant that insulates the leaves in the ferocious heat of summer. It probably also serves to attract pollinators and discourage browsing deer. Unfortunately for Cleveland sage, it also attracts me.

Although I am besotted by the plant, I cannot say that it's mutual. Considering my record with it, I feel less like a gardener and more like a serial murderer. When I told Dave Fross of Native Sons Nursery in Santa Barbara about my failures, he tried to comfort me by saying, "I don't think it's a failure unless I've killed a plant three times." He didn't know yet that, since buying that first plant, I have planted and killed at least a dozen Winnies in the last five months, along with half a dozen more supposedly hardier hybrids.

As I take what I can only hope is my last stab at growing S. clevelandii successfully, I am sure of only one thing: Not one of the nursery instructions and none of the gardening books come close to providing the detail needed to protect these heavenly smelling plants from me. Some give perfectly deadly advice.

When I got the first specimen home, the first thing I did was look it up in the Southern California Horticultural Society's blue book, "Selected Plants for Southern California Gardens." This carried personal testimonials from members who remarked on its vigor. According to one, it got too big too fast in clay with watering once a week. And it smelled too strong. My garden is clay. I water once a week. I wanted the smell. So I planted Winnie, watered it and it promptly died.

I turned to Betsy Clebsch, author of "A Book of Salvias" and such a highly regarded authority that the only other Salvia clevelandii cultivar is named after her. The Clebsch book recommended planting it in a site with "fast drainage."

The best place to find fast drainage is a slope. My lot is flat. So I set about creating a mounding bed, lightening the soil with vast amounts of leaf mold. It stood about a foot high and was as loose as it could get without blowing away. The fix took days of hard labor and proved 100% lethal.

No worry. Try again. In the search for fast drainage, I switched from mounds to beds sandwiched in dry stone walls, and then to barrels. Four more plants later, it was pointed out to me that Salvia clevelandii abhors organic matter. I should have used pumice. Its native climes are on rocky slopes, where there's almost no soil, and water slips easily past its roots.

By now, I was a seasoned observer of how Cleveland sage dies. It starts with a wilt, then the slow browning of those perfumed leaves, lower ones first. Once a decline begins, a recovery is unlikely. Stem by stem, the leaves wither and drop. Eventually, as I pulled up leafless skeleton after leafless skeleton, I began to marvel at how clearly the root rot below corresponded with the leaf rot above.

It may seem dense to have increased watering after observing root rot, but I was desperate. Shopping for more plants at Roger's Garden in Newport Beach, I noticed a sign clearly instructing that they be watered regularly. It sounded wrong to me, but Roger's is one of the best nurseries in the state and their plants looked better than mine. I bought four more, gave them regular water and killed them in no time.

I returned to buy four more and tell the customer service guys that I thought their sign was barmy.

It was time to phone some experts. The first call went to Dave Fross. I had exceeded the three-dead-plant rule four times over. I was doing everything wrong, he said, starting with planting in summer, closely followed by watering the plant when it wanted to be dormant. Salvia clevelandii should be planted in the autumn, now, before the rains.

I went back to the clay bed where my original Winnie died, planted more before the first rains. They started to die. In spite of the Horticultural Society's assurances, it seemed inescapable that clay was Kryptonite for clevelandii.

Next, I phoned Bart O'Brien, director of horticulture at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. This is mecca for native plant lovers. Tour the grounds and you'll see Cleveland sage seems to thrive in clay too. But speak to O'Brien, and he reminds you that this is a native garden, not a wild one. Before planting the Cleveland sages, they mixed river-washed quarter-inch gravel, at about a 50-50 rate by volume, with the clay loam soil, to re-create the rocky conditions it would enjoy on a mountain slope. Then they mulched on top of that to keep it from creating an impermeable clay layer.

After years of enriching my garden soil, it was galling to learn that my new favorite plant was pining for spent dirt and gravel. O'Brien said the safest way to emulate the crummy conditions they need is by using pots. These should be large so the roots can spread, terra cotta so they don't overheat and can breathe. Poor earth can be approximated by mixing from one-third to as much as one-half perlite with soil by volume. In hot weather they will want water as often as once a week. As it cools, less often.

There was, O'Brien suggested, another compromise. I could try some of the hardier hybrids, crosses between Salvia clevelandii and Salvia leucophylla. Their names: Salvia Allen Chickering, S. aromas, S. pozo blue, S. compacta or S. whirly blue. I didn't have the heart to tell him I'd already snuffed three Chickerings and two pozos. But in the process, I'd noticed a striking difference -- the scent. Unlike the almost high, clean fragrance of Winnifred Gilman, Chickering and pozo had additional low notes that brought to mind the earthy funk that wafts out of freshly opened pouches of rolling tobacco.

I like them both, but must admit a preference for the scent of Winnie. So I phoned Sherrie Alt- house of California Flora Nursery in Fulton, who helped popularize Winnifred Gilman by energetically propagating it after its discovery in a Berkeley garden. She not only seconded the advice to restrict it to pots, but added that she, as a professional, had to do the same. It is the wildest of natives, collected from some of the most rugged patches of Riverside and San Diego counties and Baja California. Care kills it.

Last weekend, I went back to Marina del Rey and bought their last Winnie, a Chickering and some large sacks of perlite. As I stirred up the mix, a colleague was startled by the ratio, but she didn't object after seeing the dismal state of the plants that were treated to richer soil. As she pinched the leaves, she exclaimed at the scent. "This is incredible!" she cried, then thought for a moment before adding, "Tell me when you get it right."

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