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Cosmopolitan White Sage a medicinal plant


Last updated 7/3/2008 at Noon

This venerable sage has a long history of use by the native peoples of Southern California as a principle medicinal plant used in the treatment of lung aliments as well as for spiritual practices.

In addition to its ethno-botanical history White Sage, Salvia apiana, is also a valuable garden specimen: versatile, extremely dramatic and excellent in garden styles ranging from cottage to stark modernist.

Not particular about soils, tolerating cold and temperate climes, and growing from within sight of the ocean to 5,000 feet in elevation, this is one of the sages for everyone, though you need some space, as it can reach eight feet or more in height when at the peak of bloom in late spring.

Its dramatically white color and height necessarily make this a specimen plant, usually for the back of a deep border or on a distant hillside where it seems to glow like a beacon when the light is low in mornings and evenings.

Cutting back by half each fall will help to refresh this sage, keeping it young and improving the bloom character the following spring.

The need to cut back such a large plant is another reason to place White Sage behind other plants to hide the shorn foliage until it has time to grow back a month or so later.

White Sage also hybridizes readily with other native sages, giving rise to many excellent garden cultivars such as Salvia “Vicky Romo” and Salvia “El Dorado.” The hybrids often have more colorful blooms but retain the glorious structure and foliage color of White Sage.

These sages all have astounding drought tolerance, often persisting without any supplemental water once completely established, even having the ability to grow out of nearly pure rock and vertical rock walls! Though in such difficult situations the plants are likely to have stunted growth and be a fraction of their normal size, a result that some gardeners may intentionally try for.

There is also a “miniature” White Sage, Salvia apiana compacta, growing to half typical size.

A classic California drought-tolerant plant, White Sage is a cosmopolitan species that is greatly underutilized. Properly cared for, it has a refined beauty that should be welcomed in every garden.

Clayton Tschudy is an ecological landscape designer and the assistant manager of Las Pilitas Native Plant Nursery in Escondido.

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