Does your lavender often fail to come back after a brutal winter? Consider growing its sturdier look-alike--Russian sage. Hardy to at least USDA zone 4, the small flowering shrub's name often confuses gardeners because it is neither native to Russia nor a member of the sage family. But this ethereal plant, which seems to haunt the garden like a purple mist, charms gardeners once they become familiar with it.
Although Russian sage originated in Central Asia, a Russian botanist received the honor of naming it in 1840. Hence, the plant's botanical name, Perovskia atriplicifolia, which paid tribute to a B. A. Perovski, governor of a Russian province at the time. The plant became an ornamental garden staple in some parts of the world at the time of its official designation, according to the University of Wisconsin. But Western gardeners really took a shine to it after a member of the U.S. National Arboretum brought the plant back to the states in the 1960s. Botanically a member of the mint family, the "sage" in Russian sage reflects its similarity in fragrance to members of the sage, or salvia, family, although they aren't horticulturally related. The Perennial Plant Association designated Russian sage its "plant of the year" in 1995.
Russian sage's silvery-green branches produce spikes of purple-blue flowers for about two months of the growing season. The plant resembles a small shrub in much the same manner as lavender. Depending on the variety grown, Russian sage spreads itself up to 4 feet tall and 3 feet wide.
Find a spot in a sunny garden bed or border. Don't fertilize the soil prior to planting; Russian sage prefers nutrient-poor soil conditions, with a neutral to alkaline pH level. Set seedlings at least 18 inches apart, at the same depth as they grew in their pots. Early spring is the best time to plant Russian sage. The seedlings appreciate regular watering the first year but prefer dry soil when they mature. The University of Wisconsin notes that Russian sage grown from seeds takes up to four months to germinate, and may be inferior to nursery plants propagated from specific cultivars. Prune Russian sage almost to the base of the plant in early spring to encourage its arching, spreading habit.
Cultivars of Russian sage include 'Little Spire,' which stays at two feet in height; 'Longin,' with a less arching habit than some of the other Russian sages; 'Blue Haze,' with pale blue flowers and 'Filigran,' with a filigreed, or lacy, silhouette.
Use Russian sage as a small shrub for foundations, as a dramatic backdrop to shorter plants, or in rock gardens. It works well in blue-themed gardens, or in contrast to large-cupped yellow or orange plants, such as peonies, roses or calendula. The plant repels deer, probably due to its pungent, sage-like scent. If left unpruned, it adds drama to the winter landscape.