12 October 2011

Perennial Mexican Bush Sage is Salvia leucantha

If we lived in Eastern Mexico or Central America where there is no frost, Mexican bush sage, salvia leucantha, would stay green all year and grow into a woody shrub.


In our zone seven climate, its summertime 2- to 4-foot tall growth and long flower clusters make it well worth growing anyway.

A member of the mint family, Mexican sage has the characteristic square stems and scented leaves, though this one has leaves shaped like a willow. Sometimes it is called Velvet Sage for the white, wooly texture on the stems and the bottom of the leaves.

The white flowers extend from purple or lavender calyces in 6 to 10 inch long clusters. In fact, mostly what you see as rays of abundant flowers are actually calyces.

Some hybrids, including midnight, all purple and purple velvet have purple flowers and calyces. The pink variety, Santa Barbara grows only 2 feet tall and could be placed in front of the taller varieties to create an effortless fall flower bed.

The rays of calyces and flowers can be used in cut flower arrangements and the calyces can be dried for fall decorating.

Said to prefer full sun, in our heat, Mexican sage can grow beautifully in part shade, as long as it gets six hours of sun. Otherwise it can become tall and skimpy, reaching for sunlight. Another way to keep the bush full is to prune it around June. The flowers should be removed after they fade.

Keeping sage wet will cause it to suffer but keeping it dry for weeks at a time will also prevent it from doing its best.

Group Mexican sage with other moderate-moisture need plants such as thyme, butterfly bush, rosemary and other salvias.

It is pest, deer and disease resistant.

Bush sage can also be grown in a patio pot. The butterflies and hummingbirds will seek out the flowers in the fall no matter where it blooms.

The flowers that fill the plant from late-August to first frost will make you wonder how to keep it in the garden for next fall.

Sharon Owen, owner of Moonshadow Herb Farm in Muskogee, said that while you can take cuttings of Mexican bush sage for next year, an easier propagation method is to take root cuttings and grow new plants from emerging shoots in the spring.

To grow salvia leucantha from seed, start seeds indoors six to eight weeks before last spring frost date. Keep the soil around 70 degrees and allow two weeks for seedlings to sprout. Harvest seeds from this year’s plant. When the calyx starts to become papery, prune it into an envelope, catching the seeds as they fall.

Perennial salvia can also be rooted at the soil level. Bend an outer branch down and remove the leaves and branching where it will touch the ground. Cover the bare branch with soil to help it root over the winter. I usually cover the soil with a few layers of newspaper topped with a rock to hold it all in place.

Another way to help a zone eight to 10 plant survive the winter is to mulch the roots. After the first frost, put a wire cage around the plant and fill the cage with pine needles or loose straw. Avoid using leaves because they pack when they get wet, preventing air circulation.

Do not prune Mexican sage shrub until new growth emerges in the spring. This year’s branches and leaves will provide some additional winter protection.

Sources:
• Mountain Valley Growers has all purple, www.mountainvalleygrowers.com.
• Plant Delights has the midnight variety www.plantdelights.com.
• Proven Winners has pink Santa Barbara Mexican bush sage, www.provenwinners.com.
• Sooner Plant Farm has dwarf Mexican bush sage Santa Barbara that grows 12 inches tall, www.soonerplantfarm. com.

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