Some may call desert sage (Salvia dorrii) one of the American West's most rugged but beautiful native shrubs. Among the few flowering noncactus plants that relishes heat, nutrient-poor soil and little water, its silvery gray foliage is at home nestled around large boulders and dry pebbles. Grow it in USDA Hardiness Zones 6 through 10 where you have no irrigation and the summers are neither cool nor excessively humid.
Desert sage hails from the Great Basin of the extreme western United States in native plant ecosystems involving Joshua tree woodland, pinyon-Juniper woodland and sagebrush scrub on slopes above low deserts. Its natural range extends from southeastern Washington to central western California and central Arizona and New Mexico.
The silvery light green leaves emit a fragrance when crushed or rubbed and linger nearly year-round, although some leaf drop is expected each winter, more so in colder deserts. In mid to late spring, the branch tips bear bright violet-purple bracts and pale blue flowers that also emit a fragrance, attracting insects for pollination.
Grow desert sage in an infertile soil with excellent, fast drainage after rains. A near-neutral to alkaline soil pH (6.0 to 8.0) derived from sand, volcanic rock or decomposed granite is ideal. Locate it in a spot with abundant sunshine, no less than eight hours each day. Once established, do not provide any supplemental water.
Desert sage cannot grow successfully in acidic, irrigated or fertile soils and thus makes a poor choice for many garden settings. Use it only in alkaline, un-irrigated and infertile sandy or gritty soil areas such as a hillside or dry short-grass prairie. It makes a superb flowering shrub for an inhospitably hot, desert garden or xeriscape/water conservation landscape. It could grow in a large container as long as light, soil and moisture needs are met. It is a bird-attracting plant and mammals like deer do not graze on its leaves.
Rarely do pests or diseases plague the desert sage because of its tough growing environment. Overwatering or fertilizing causes it to be short-lived, and can lead to issues of rot. If light intensity is inadequate, occasional scale, aphid or mealybugs may be seen on stems or leaf undersides. Hot, windless locations may find spider mites creating webbed nests in branch tips among leaves.
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