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Jessica Walliser

Russian sage is a hardy, deer-resistant perennial worth growing

Jessica Walliser
| Sunday, Dec. 9, 2018, 12:03 a.m.
Wispy stalks of blue Russian sage blooms grace the front of this perennial border.
Wispy stalks of blue Russian sage blooms grace the front of this perennial border.

Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) is a wonderful, drought-tolerant perennial that’s grown by gardeners all across our region and well beyond. It’s adored for its wispy, silver-white stems, gray-green leaves and airy spires of blue blooms. The flowers of Russian sage are long-lasting; it’s not unusual for the plant to be in flower for three months straight.

Unlike culinary sage, Russian sage isn’t an edible. Instead, this plant is purely ornamental, adding a beautiful loose texture to the garden with its billowy growth habit. However, when the leaves of Russian sage are crushed, they do have a sage-like scent.

Like butterfly bushes, Caryopteris and lavenders, Russian sage is considered to be a woody perennial. This means that the plant forms woody stem tissue in a single year’s growth, unlike most perennials which are herbaceous (meaning they only produce succulent, tender growth during the growing season). Woody perennials like Russian sage should be left standing through the winter and then cut back hard the following spring. This encourages strong, sturdy growth and many future blooms. It’s best to cut Russian sage to within 6 inches of the ground in March.

Fully hardy down to about -40 degrees F, Russian sage thrives in any full sun area with well-drained soil. Though many people find the loose, billowy growth of the plant to be too “floppy” for their taste, others cherish it for the very same trait. If the plant doesn’t receive enough sun or you over-fertilize it, it grows even more lanky and leggy and the stems are unable to support themselves. Skip fertilizing this plant and make sure it receives at least 8 hours of full sun per day. Staking the stems early in the growing season does help, but it changes its natural growth habit and makes it look a little rigid.

A great choice for deer-plagued gardens, Russian sage isn’t touched by rabbits or deer, nor is it bothered by many insect pests, save for the four-lined plant bug which can cause some aesthetic damage but will not kill the plant.

There are several newer cultivars of this plant that have been bred to have a more upright or dwarf growth habit. Instead of flopping wide in its typical open growth habit, the varieties “Blue Spire” and “Blue Jean Baby” produce flower spikes that are more upright. Another variety, “Little Spire”, stands at half the mature height of other varieties. If you’re bothered by the openness of the straight species, try one of these selections instead.

Russian sage blooms from late summer into fall. Partner it with other late-season perennials for a blast of color. Heliopsis, Helianthus, yarrow, coneflowers, and garden phox are good partners for this plant. It also looks great with low-growing summer annuals such as petunias, portulaca and sweet alyssum.

And, as an added bonus, Russian sage supports many different pollinators who feast on the nectar produced in its blooms. On a sunny summer day, you’ll find many different species of native bees as well as honeybees buzzing around the plant in search of nectar.

Horticulturist Jessica Walliser co-hosts “The Organic Gardeners” at 7 a.m. Sundays on KDKA Radio with Doug Oster. She is the author of several gardening books, including “Attracting Beneficial Bugs to Your Garden,” “Good Bug, Bad Bug,” and her newest title, “Container Gardening Complete.” Her website is jessicawalliser.com. Send your gardening or landscaping questions to tribliving@tribweb.com or The Good Earth, 622 Cabin Hill Drive, Greensburg, PA 15601.

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