PLANT OF THE WEEK #50: Perovskia atriplicifolia (Salvia yangii)

I love the name Perovskia.  With a slight roll on the ‘r’ you can’t help but sound kind of Russian as you say it.  So it’s a bit disappointing to find that Perovskia atriplicifolia (Russian sage) is now just a salvia.  Salvia yangii, in fact.  There’s also a sniff of snobbery when a hard name, which you’ve remembered, and mastered, is replaced by an easy one, which anyone can manage.  I’m willing to confess to a bit of that.

But the plant itself hasn’t changed. And what a great plant it is.  While at its climax in late summer and autumn, it’s a buoyant haze of lavender-blue above lovely grey foliage.  For weeks before flowering it’s tracery of sparse, spidery, silver stems provide a promise of what’s to come, and long after flowering, well into winter, those silver stems remain, only gaining in argentine clarity as surrounding perennials fade to straw and brown.

Russian Sage is one of those plants that’s either dead easy for you, or impossible to please.  My own experience of it would suggest that its preferences include good drainage, poorish (in terms of low-nutrient) and dryish soil and minimal competition for light and space around it.  It’s also one of those plants whose charms are enormously amplified by repetition – it wants to be planted in a reasonable clump or sweep. A dozen plants together isn’t nearly too many, though in a smaller garden you’d get away with less.  Having said that, a single plant on its own is going to leave you wondering what all the fuss is about.  The winter effect, in which it’s stems look permanently frosted, is particularly dependent upon repetition in order to reach full power.

Early silvery stems – the orange in flower behind is Agastache aurantiaca

Russian Sage is so effective in naturalistic perennial planting that it would be easy to think that that was its only relevant context.  Then about ten years ago, I saw it hovering above formally clipped box at, of all places, Villandry, in France, and came to see that I’d typecast it, unnecessarily.

Russian Sage is a subshrub, rather than an herbaceous perennial, meaning that it has a woody base, but herbaceous top growth, so follows the pattern of perennials sufficiently to find its place amongst them.  The only difference in treatment is that, instead of cutting its stems right to the ground, you retain a woody skeleton of 15-20cm in height.  So far I’ve only found it to sucker around gently, though one or two gardeners have reported to me that it’s threatened a take-over bid.  Way more gardeners have lamented that they’ve never been able to make it happy.  Given its incredible contribution, I’d always recommend giving it a go.  Or another go.  Or another.

Does Russian sage do well for you?  Any thoughts on what makes it happiest?

Discussion

  1. I agree – shame about the new name, it feels different enough to other Salvias to keep its distance, but you can’t fight the classifiers… I’ve grown this successfully in a raised gravel garden – garden soil mixed through with around 1/3rd coarse gravel – and am now about to start a coastal garden (basically improved sand). How do you think it will fare? My gut feel is that it should be ok, it appreciated the heavy drainage of the gravel garden, so this is going to be a bit similar. Any others with experience of growing it in improved sandy soils?

    1. I think it should do very well, but it seems like it’s impossible to predict (Check Chris’s experience below, breaking all the rules!). I’ll be interested to see how it goes. Please revisit this page and give us an update once you’ve tried.

    2. Only one way to find out! Plant some and report back in 6 months.

  2. Where mine is planted there is sun, and it’s dry but we have very good basalt soil. I planted one small plant a friend gave me and it has taken three years finally grow a little and it’s spread slightly. I shall give up I think and pass it on to someone with poorer soil 😒

    1. How bizarre. I just don’t get that. it must be the stocky volcanic soil. But then there’s the experience of Chris, below…

  3. I love this plant under any name. I started with maybe a dozen and it’s self seeded fabulously. It’s growing in clay with wet feet all year – irrigated with bore water in summer and sitting in sticky wet clay in winter. I have it in shade and sun, growing alone or wedged in clumps of sedums. In the difficult growing conditions in central Vic this one is a standout winner.

    1. Well, so much for my dryish and well-drained! This is so good to know. I’ve never had it self sow, but have heard it doing so for others. How brilliant!

  4. I’ve grown ‘Little Spires’ for a number of years and love it, it’s very amenable to terrible, albeit well drained soil. I’ve propagated it for clients several times and always found it grew much more pleasingly if I knocked all the potting mix off the roots and spread them out into a shallow, bowl-shaped hole, covering the crown completely. It tends to run very pleasingly, when you do this. I’ve never known it to be thuggish, or at least it’s easy to rein in where you don’t want it creeping.

    Tough as nails but doesn’t enjoy a lavishly-composted or heavy clay in my experience, so Chris’ comment is an interesting one. It’s ideal for me has been very open, skeletal soil with a little irrigation, but it has put up with more clay and less water, but only to a point before it begins underperforming for me. But I keep trying to push its boundaries, it sometimes surprises where it shouldn’t and sometimes bombs out where I think it’ll do well. The struggle is real.

    1. Thanks James for that fabulous info – precisely the kind of stuff that is so hard to come by online – or anywhere – and precisely what I’d hoped for from this platform

  5. Hi, this plant is said to be from steppe conditions which may mean that depth of soil is important to it doing well, also not being crowded with dense neighbours ( although one of mine is right in the root zone of a well established bay tree and it does just as well as others which don’t have this root competition).

    I grow it in sun and part shade (lots of shade spring and autumn but more sun in summer). In the shady spot it flops around the place but still puts out a similar density of flowers to the ones in full sun. All plants are expanding at about the same rate. Soil is a well drained, heavy loam, Mt Dandenong.

    1. Interesting that it provides a similar density of flowers in shade and sun. Also interested in your thoughts about the link between steppe and soil depth. Are you thinking that steppe conditions suggest deep soils? I’ve not made that connection before

  6. I have plenty of success growing it in Ballarat and in Melbourne. It is grown in terrible clay soil, and it is heavily mulched. I am also a water miser , so the plants don’t get much from me. And yes ! It does self seed for me. I suspect the mulch slows down the self seeding.

  7. Is Russian sage an invasive plant?
    Several Russian sage varieties are available on the market. … Russian sage spreads by self-sowing if conditions are right and also by rhizomes. In some situations, gardeners report this perennial flower as being invasive. It is not, however, reported. Tree Removal Colorado Springs

    1. Hi Sam, no doubt there are some places where it may be invasive. I have never known it to be. I’ve had one Australian gardener complain to me about how happy it had made itself in his garden. Nearly everyone else wishes it was happier than it is. Invasiveness is always going to be climate-specific, and Ive never gardened anywhere in which there’s even a faint danger of Perovskia escaping the boundaries of the garden

  8. At our Paul Bangay designed garden at Barossa Valley Estate in SA we have thousands of these plants en masse in wide garden beds sweeping down either side of a long 100m winding driveway. The Russian Sage is planted densely covering approx width of 2-3m bordered by a mass planting of another 2m width of Nepeta Walkers Blue in front. It thrives here and has suckered just enough to densely cover the whole ground making very little soil for weeds to grow. I think this garden design has take the “repetition” of this plant to a whole new level, however, when it’s flowering with the Nepeta, the sea of purple is spectacular! NOTE: With it’s peak flowering time here in January, as the flowers are fading in late February, I dead head the first flush of flowers to get a very strong repeat flush of bright purple flowers in late March and Early April.

    1. You’re so lucky to get it to flower twice, Aleisha. For all the challenges a climate like yours might throw your way, this is a huge compensation, imho. One of the things that I found interesting in the recent book about Piet Oudolf’s Hauser and Wirth garden is that they rarely dead-head, even when they think there’s a chance of getting a second flush, as they find that the second flush of flowers doesn’t look as good as the first in seed (due to that visible pruning-point) over winter. Do you have an opinion on this?

    2. The second flush is not far off being as strong as the first flush. it’s actually still looking quite purple up there now (beginning of May) and no I don’t see a pruning point. I think the key is all in the timing for the dead heading, it must be done in February as the flowers are fading, if you wait till the flowers have finished the second flush of flowers is never as strong. I use this rule on all my Salvia, Agastache, Anthemis, Phlomis, Gaura, which are all still in flower here in May and complimenting the autumnal trees, vines, Sedum, Yarrow, Aster, Calamagrostis, Panicum etc.

    3. Thanks so much for this Aleisha. I admit that I’d never considered the point about exactly when things are dead-headed ie whether just tilting over into decline, or once fully past their best. I looking forward to experimenting with it

  9. Oh how I wish I could have some success with Perovskia; perhaps if I thought of it as a Salvia, it might do better……
    I have tried quite a number of times to grow it in two quite different gardens.
    The first is my Park Orchards garden which has poor soil – clay shale base with shallow added topsoil; rather dry. The second is my Beach House – sandy with added organic matter over many years. Also dry but irrigated. In many ways I would have thought both gardens suitable. I have long since given up…… Interestingly I also cannot get Agastache or Echinacea to grow either.
    I think the comment about having spce is possibly a secret – my gardens are a bit overfull and perhas the Perovskia finds this is too much competition.
    Perhaps it is time for me to give it another go – and clear a good sized space for it…..

    1. Don’t only think of it as a Salvia, starting addressing it as a Salvia, and it might start behaving with the obliging nature of its cousins! I think given Annette’s experience, the space thing might be a factor. When you think about how we saw it in Bettina Jaugstetter’s planting at ABB park, where she made the point that nothing in that planting restricts light down to ground level… That might also account for why it always seems to succeed best in reasonably sized sweeps, as it casts very little shade to it’s own growth

  10. Here, on free-draining granitic, sandy soil, Perovskia grows with gay abandon. So much so that, I’ve found it self-seeding in parts of the garden some distance from the original plants. It delivers from November to April, starting with beautiful silver spires among the fresh greenery of Spring through to the ragged, flowery end in Autumn. It combines beautifully with other perennials, especially the more clumpy ones that benefit from its lightness of form. It remains strong and exuberant in hot, dry conditions.

    1. great advice, Annette. I’d have thought that those free-draining granitic conditions would be exactly what it wanted (only to be shown that it’s not quite that predictable, by other readers), and it’s interesting that it self-sows for you. I don’t know that it has ever done so in any of my gardens. It’d be interesting to know whether your soil and climatic conditions are what leads to it self-sowing, or whether the relatively less dense growth of surrounding plants in such conditions allows for light to get to ground level, and encourage self-sowing.
      Dang. I so wish there was some commercial imperative for someone to understand such things, so that it could one day be truly sorted. Meanwhile, we’re all just guessing

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