Never truly Russian, and until recently not a sage either, Russian Sage is that plant you see in a garden and go, “Wow! What is that?” A striking concoction of silver and blue, it is very effective alone, and a great partner for other plants too. And that is before we even get to its drought-resistance, a feature that is going to see it elevated even more in the coming decades of climate change and warming temperatures.
Blue! Blue! Blue! And Silver!
If like me you have a love-affair with blue in the garden, then you won’t be able to live without Russian Sage. The intensity and brilliance of the blue flowers is unmatched and comes closer to true, dark, sky blue than just about anything else – aside perhaps from Delphiniums, a plant today rarely seen and notoriously difficult to grow. Individual flowers are small, and of the typical ‘sage’ type – a trumpet with an upper and lower lip. These are produced continuously from a large branching flower head, that is typically about a foot long. Each flower grows from a small, permanent cup, and these, and the flower head stems too, are dark purple, covered in silver hairs. OK, if you want to be really picky, there is some violet in that blue, somewhere, but hey, when gardening we need to be just a little forgiving when it comes to “How blue is blue?” . Not only are the flowers stunningly beautiful, the flowering season is amazingly long – often from July to October – depending on your zone.
Technically a ‘sub-shrub’, in cooler parts of the country Russian Sage usually performs more like a regular perennial, dying back in fall and resprouting vigorously the next spring. In a season it will easily grow to 4 feet tall. In warmer zones it is more shrub-like, keeping a significant number of branches through winter, if it isn’t hard-pruned. New branches and leaves are so silvery they are almost white, so even before flowering gets going, the intensity purity of that coloring is a beacon all across the garden. The leaves vary between the varieties, and where they are on the stems. Sometimes they are pointed ovals with scalloped or serrated edges, while others have deeply-divided leaves that can be so delicate they resemble filigree lace. What unites them is the dense covering of silver-white hairs, so that only plants grown in shade – which they hate – have even a trace of green on the leaves.
Where to Grow Russian Sage
A dry-garden favorite, what is amazing about Russian Sage is how adaptable it is. As long as the soil isn’t wet, and the sun shines on it, it will grow anywhere. From rich garden beds of perennials to the driest, rocky sun-trap, it thrives, but always favoring dryness and heat. This makes it a natural for today’s xeric or waterwise gardening, as once it gets a few drinks to establish itself – like some of your friends at a party – it is off and running, and needs nothing more. The only enemy is water, and soggy soil, especially in winter, is going to kill it, no question. So avoid heavy clays, or if that is all you have, mix a good amount of gravel (not sand) into it and make a raised mound to plant on – that should do the trick.
You can grow Russian Sage mixed among perennials of all kinds and colors, or grow it among flowering shrubs. You can plant it on a dry, rocky slope with other xeric plants, or grow it as a border along a drive or path. You can also grow it in planters – and they won’t die on you when you go away for a week.
As for hardiness, forget the idea that this is a plant for hot zones. Yes, it thrives in New Mexico, and is happy in zone 9 wherever that happens to be. Yet it also grows happily in the northeast, given full sun, all through zone 5 and with good drainage can be grown in zone 4 too – I personally vouch for that.
As for pest problems, forget them. Deer hate it, rabbits won’t eat it, and it is untroubled by any pests or diseases. If the stems turn black and rot, or it dies in winter, those diseases result from poor, wet growing conditions. In heavy soils it can suffer during very humid, hot weather. A simple cut-back to live parts in spring is all the care it needs – don’t cut back in fall, as this can increase winter deaths.
A Quick Tour of the Natural Home of Russian Sage
Usually called Perovskia atriplicifolia, but currently also being called Salvia yangii, based on DNA analysis, in our gardens some at least of the plants we call Russian Sage are hybrids with other Perovskia species. There are only eight of those, and they are all closely related and subject to modification.
Next time you are on a cruise through Tibet (!), you might find one or other of these species, and also across Tajikistan, Tibet, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, and northern India. Notice that none of these places are part of Russia, but most of these places were once part of the Soviet Union, and before that considered by many part of the Russian Empire, so calling it ‘Russian’ is not so much of a stretch.
All of these places are high deserts, arid, and they also have cold winters, so it’s no wonder that Russian Sage grows so well across such a wide range of climate zones. The silver covering on the leaves is probably there to conserve moisture or to reduce the intensity of the bright sunlight through the dry, high air. Resisting drought comes naturally to plants like these.
Varieties of Russian Sage
Like so many of our garden plants, the Russian Sage we grow is not simply seedlings of seed taken from wild plants, and some at least are hybrids, probably with the species Perovskia abrotanoides. That species has more deeply-divided leaves, while wild plants of P. atriplicifolia have less deeply-divided ones leaves. Gardeners generally value the ‘lacy look’, so most modern varieties have that look. Chicago Botanic Gardens* ran careful trials on 13 different varieties, and the following notes are based on their impartial results.
Blue Spire Russian Sage – Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Blue Spire’. A relatively narrow plant, about 4 feet tall, this was one of the first varieties introduced, and it’s still popular in the UK and Europe. It came from Germany, but was named by the English nursery Notcutts in 1961. Largely superseded by more modern varieties, it was not assessed by Chicago Botanic.
Blue Spritzer™ Russian Sage – Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Balperobritz’. For a different look, consider this variety, or the similar ‘Blue Steel’. These varieties don’t have lacy leaves, but simple, slightly serrated ovals. This gives the plants a denser look, and a more greenish appearance, which can be exactly what you want for variety. Both stand a little under 3 feet tall. Blue Spritzer™ has lighter blue flowers than many other varieties, while in Blue Steel they are a deep blue. Both rated 5-stars at Chicago Botanic.
Denim ‘n Lace Russian Sage – Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Denim ‘n Lace’ (PP# 28,445). Given a 5-star rating by Chicago Botanic, this variety is simply superb. Generally growing to 3 feet tall and up to 4 feet wide, this striking specimen has ferny leaves, and very large flower heads – they can be up to 2 feet of flower spike, made up of many 8-inch spikes forming a big pyramid.
Filigree Russian Sage – Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Filigran’. The name is German for ‘filigree’, so that seems like a reasonable common name. It was introduced by Ernst Pagels, one of the last centuries’ most important perennial breeders. It is the closest variety to the wild P. abrotanoides (although probably a hybrid in fact), and if you like lacy foliage, this is the plant for you. 4 feet tall and a good 5 feet across, it should be given enough room to really show-off, and like all the taller varieties it can flop, earning it a 3-star rating.
Little Lace™ Russian Sage – Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Novaperlac’. Another Chicago 5-star plant, this is your go-to for a smaller plant, standing a little less than 3 feet tall. The leaves are deeply cut, although not as fine as in ‘Filigran’. A great choice for smaller spaces.
Russian Sage – Perovskia atriplicifolia. This is a plant close to the wild species, and although it can be more floppy, scoring it just a 3-star rating, if you want ‘big and beautiful’ for rocky places and open, xeric gardens, you can’t beat it. Well over 4 feet tall and often 5 feet wide, the leaves are not so divided as in many others, but the blooming season is long, and the color vibrant.