Fundamental Facts

HARDINESS: Zones 4 lo 9
PREFERRED SOIL TYPE: Average, well-drained
ATTRIBUTES: Silvery, divided foliage; spikes of lavender flowers; for beds, cutting
SEASON OF INTEREST: Early summer to fall
FAVORITES: 'Blue Spire', 'Longin', 'Filigran'
QUIRKS: Performs best when subjected to cold winters and hot summers
GOOD NEIGHBORS: Daylilies, garden phlox, ornamental grasses, sedum, veronica, yarrow
WHERE IT GROWS BEST: In sun and well-drained soil
POTENTIAL PROBLEMS: Prolonged wet soil causes fatal root rot
RENEWING PLANTS: Lives many years; cut back to 12 in (30.5 cm) in early spring
SOURCE: Stem cuttings, division
DIMENSIONS: 3-4 ft (1-1.2 m) tall, 3 ft (1 m) wide

Russian Sage in the Landscape

There's a time during the hottest part of the summer when most perennials take a breather and stop blooming. That's when Russian sage steps in, just in time to cool down the heat with its frosty gray-green leaves and cool lavender flower spikes. Growing rapidly to 3 ft (1 m) tall or more, Russian sage makes a statement with its foliage early in the season. But it's in midsummer that the willowy stems are crowned with sprays of lavender blooms that can linger for 2 months. Russian sage bursts on the scene just as the flowers of daylilies and other early-summer bloomers recede. And it remains handsome as the flowers of late-blooming perennials, such as Joe Pye weed, sedum, and garden phlox start to open. The fanlike flowering stems, picked when the flowers on the lower third of die spire are opening, provide a wonderful addition to homegrown bouquets.

A single plant of Russian sage spreads out to a girth that can reach 3 ft (1 m) across, so one robust specimen can anchor a corner or light up the back of a border. If you encourage branching by lightly pruning the plant early in summer, Russian sage forms a very broad swath of color.

There are a few named cultivars, such as dainty 'Blue Spire', a strongly upright grower with lacy, finely cut leaves. For a more compact plant with flower spires of a lighter violet color, opt for 'Longin', whose leaves are not as serrated as those of the species. Or, if you prefer a lacier look with baby blue blossoms, try 'Filigran'.

Tough Beauty

Though not technically a sage, Russian sage has many of the same virtues. The soft, gray-green leaves emit a light herbal scent when brushed, and the plant's robust root system helps it withstand long, hot summers and dry spells. Because it rarely wilts in heat, mulching is not necessary.The plant is, however, a bit lax, so site it where it can flop gracefully or set it behind perennials that can help support it. Russian sage is naturally durable and easily weathers cold winters.

Growing Russian Sage

A sunny spot in well-drained soil is all this plant asks. Boggy soil is fatal, leading to a slow death from root rot. Also avoid shady locations, which will cause Russian sage to stretch out, reaching for the sun. Early spring is the best time to set out purchased plants. After their first year in the garden, cut them back to 12 in (30.5 cm) in early spring so that the new season's growth will arise from the roots rather than from old stems. Plants will grow happily for several years in hospitable sites. If plants become overcrowded over time, divide them and replant die divisions.

Once you have one plant, you will probably want a few more. Stem cuttings taken in midspring are easy to root in containers filled with a mixture of sand and damp peat moss kept in partial shade until rooting occurs. You will know that roots have formed, and that the cuttings can be planted in the garden, when new growth begins to show on the stems.

This naturally aromatic plant repels insects and four-footed pests. Diseases are practically unheard of.

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