Attracting bees and butterflies, the lavender-pink summertime flowers of the purple sage (Salvia leucophylla) make a welcome addition to gardens with little irrigation. Popular in water-conservation gardens in the American Southwest, this perennial does not tolerate extreme winter cold. Grow it successfully in USDA Hardiness Zones 8 and warmer; in Zone 7, winter mulch and dry soil conditions help it survive.
This drought-tolerant perennial is native to the dry, open hills of California's central and southern coasts, western Transverse Ranges, San Gabriel Mountains and into Mexico's Baja California.
Growing 3 to 6 feet tall, this evergreen perennial with semiwoody, upright to sprawling stems bears fuzzy green-gray leaves. In late spring and across summer, branch tips bear loose spikes of pink-lavender and orange flowers in tiered ranks, attracting bees and butterflies. Afterward, seeds form and become a source of food for birds, including quail.
Grow purple sage in a clay, loam or sandy soil with excellent drainage after rains or irrigation. Provide a location where it receives at least 8 to 10 hours of direct sunlight daily. Too little sun causes plants to look wiry or lopsided, and flowering diminishes. Amazingly drought tolerant once established, newly planted purple sage plants need 1 inch of water each week for the first 4 to 6 weeks to help establish its root system. In frosty climates with mild winter, the foliage may drop away and stems die back to the ground. Plants then send up new stems and foliage in spring after the soil warms, and flowering occurs later into late summer and early autumn. Consider pruning back stems every 1 to 2 years each spring to promote a tidy, well-branched plant specimen.
Purple sage incorporates well into any sunny perennial border or large rockery. In natural areas it acts as wildlife cover as well as a means to stabilize soil on rocky slopes or barren road medians and shoulders. It tolerates light salt spray and would make a good flowering perennial for seaside cottage gardens.
The variety 'Point Sal' grows about 4 to 8 inches tall and 3 to 5 feet wide, becoming a handsome flowering groundcover for hillsides or dry garden areas. 'Amethyst Bluff', a selection from the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, bears flowers with a violet-pink hue, growing 5 feet tall and 5 to 7 feet wide. 'Figueroa' develops stems and leaves heavily covered in gray hairs, looking almost pure silvery white. Creamy white leaf edges appear on the gray-green leaves of 'Variegata'.