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.
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?