Plant This: Autumn sage is not just for autumn

In the past month, three different visitors to my garden have commented on its fragrance as they walk through the front gate. “It’s just the Salvia greggii ,” I say, taking for granted the clean, minty scent of this shrubby native that I’ve planted on either side of my entry.

But yesterday I was out pulling weeds under the salvia, my arms buried in its lower branches, my nose in the fresh leaves and pink flowers on top, and—WOW!—the delicious fragrance bowled me over. Afterward, driving around town on errands, I could still smell it.

So here’s my question: why do so many people (myself included) take Autumn sage for granted? Or brush it off as too common? Or plant it but let it straggle along in an unkempt state and then grow to hate it? I’m here to sing the praises of Salvia greggii :

1. It’s nearly evergreen in Austin’s mild climate. It may thin out a bit in winter, but that’s the perfect time to give it a hard pruning in preparation for spring.

2. It blooms off and on year-round, not just in autumn. The best show is in spring and fall, but mine blooms in summer and winter too.

3. It stays compact, so if you plant it along your foundation it won’t try to eat your house.

4. Hummingbirds and sphinx moths love it.

5. It smells wonderful when you brush against it, so plant it near paths or at entries where people will touch it.

6. It doesn’t require dividing, rarely seeds out, and only requires a hard trim a few times a year to keep it looking fresh. The most common mistake I see in the upkeep of Autumn sage is neglecting to trim it. Over time, the pliable, green branches become woody, and the plant becomes a sere version of its former self. To keep this from happening, you must prune it hard a few times a year (more below).

7. There are a number of different flower colors to choose from, although the two most popular in Austin are bright pink and red. Those seem to be the hardiest too.

8. This is a tough, drought-tolerant plant. Give it full or mostly sun and well-drained soil, and it’ll thrive. But if you want it to look its best, don’t starve it of water. While Autumn sage can survive periods of drought, it isn’t going to look its best while doing so. Just give it a good drink every 10 to 14 days in summer if you haven’t had rain, the same as most tough garden plants, and it’ll keep its good looks.

9. The fragrance that pleases the gardener may also repel deer. And this salvia is largely disease and pest resistant.

Upkeep is easy and fragrant work. Prune Salvia greggii back hard in late winter, early summer, and late summer—even if it’s still blooming. I cut mine back with hedge shears by 1/3 to 1/2 in mid-February (late winter in Austin), early to mid-May, and late August. The stubby, little mounds will put out new, green growth immediately, followed by new blooms. In between those hard cuts, whenever the blooms seem a little tired, I give them a light trim—just the top couple of inches—to refresh them.

It’s that easy.

Note: My Plant This posts are written primarily for gardeners in central Texas. The plants I recommend are ones I’ve grown myself and have direct experience with. I wish I could provide more information about how these plants might perform in other parts of the country, but gardening knowledge is local. Consider checking your local online gardening forums to see if a particular plant might work in your region.

All material © 2006-2013 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

11 Responses

  1. Priscilla says:

    I love the smell of salvias. They are one of the next plants/seeds I am wanting to get. I’m thinking of snatching some straglers from the nurseries when they go on sale.

    They should grow wonderfully in San Antonio. Enjoy! —Pam

  2. Lisa at Greenbow says:

    Wow this sounds like something I should try.

    If you do, let me know how it works out for you. I really love these salvias. —Pam

  3. anna maria says:

    Thank you for the information. This sounds like my kind of plant and I will look for it at our Botanical Gardens’ sale on Saturday.
    By the way, the photos in your last post are spectacular!

    I hope you find it at the plant sale, Anna Maria. And thanks for the nice words about my Lost Maples photos. —Pam

  4. Kathy says:

    About the only thing growing in my friend Cynthia’s deer-ravaged garden were some salvias by her driveway.

    Well, you could do worse than go with an all-salvia garden. Think how delightful it would smell! —Pam

  5. Carol says:

    I would add another question… how often do we plan for fragrance in our gardens, and where that fragrance will be? Scent in the garden is important, and often the scent is the main memory that people take from a place. We may recall how something smelled long after the image fades in our minds. And smelling a fragrance again, in another setting, brings back memories of the garden we first smelled it in. How many gardeners know the answer to the question… what does your garden smell like?

    And we often do ignore the “common plants”, in favor of exotic, new plants. I guess some plants become common because they are GOOD plants to grow in a garden and get over-planted, which then becomes their downfall, and one reason why they grow out of favor. Because they are considered “commmon”.

    Thought-provoking post!
    Carol at May Dreams Gardens

    It sounds like you’ve got the seeds for two posts going, Carol. Thanks for running with this idea and posing these thought-provoking questions. —Pam

  6. Benjamin says:

    I’ve been shying away from salvia because so many people have them, but all those people keep saying I should try it. This one sounds lovely.

    I’m not sure whether this salvia can withstand your Nebraska winters, Benjamin. It may only be hardy to the single digits. (How cold does it get up there?) But many salvias are fragrant, and perhaps there are winter-hardy varieties available. Or you could always grow Salvia greggii as a spring-fall annual. —Pam

  7. max says:

    Oh, Benjamin, there’s a lot going on in salvias: google some of these for starters:

    At least out here it seems like there are more than “a number” of different colors of S. greggii. I recently figured out that one of my favorites is actually S. x jamensis, but I think it’s still half greggii. I have another nice one with deep red flowers and variegated leaves… can’t remember the name. Never noticed the fragrance, though…

    Speaking of which, if you ever see an ornamental Satureja, buy it. Some of the european spp. are the savories of your kitchen, and worth growing for that reason, but I have twon new world spp. with and indescribably delicious/sweet/minty (but never rank) smell. In fact, I’ll send you some seed if I ever get my Satureja mexicana to set it; it might like Texas.

    Max, you must be in a salvia paradise. Benjamin gardens in Nebraska though, so his options may be more limited. I’m certainly intrigued by the Satureja you mentioned. I’ll have to google it to get a look. —Pam

  8. Bev says:

    Pam, Salvia Greggii is one of my very favorite plants and the one that I wish more than anything that I could overwinter here in CO. When I visited Santa Fe High Country Gardens I loved seeing so many of these plants in bloom. Oh, and to smell them, that must be wonderful!

    Bev, do you ever grow it as an annual? I’d think it would give you a long bloom time. Are there any perennial salvias that you can grow in your colder climate? —Pam

  9. Benjamin says:

    Yeah, I’m a zone 5, -15 to -20 they say (that hasn’t happened for years, but who wants to chance it?). It’s the cold wind that gets to you–VERY windy on the plains here.

    Brrr! Sounds like salvias would be an annual option for you instead. S. greggii would work beautifully in a summer container. —Pam

  10. Bonnie says:

    I dug some out of my garden that I had begun to loathe…but I’ve never been able to pitch a plant that is still alive so I found a more suitable place lower in the yard to give it new life and hopefully will see the rewards next spring! I have some “Hot Lips” in my front yard and just love it. It even does well there in shade- and it is deer resistant which is so valuable in Austin!

    I hope it will do well for you. Hard trims are the key to enjoying S. greggii. I love ‘Hot Lips’ too and put a 4″ pot of it in a container last spring. It got a little thirsty over the summer, but I hope it will come back. —Pam

  11. Kathy says:

    Hi Pam, I love this plant! I planted about a dozen last year in various areas around our acre. Some spots…WOW! They love it! Others…not so much. I’ve never been one to play by the rules in gardening so I’m tempted to move the ones which aren’t thriving. Do they respond very well to moving? Thanks for such a great website!

    Yes, they do fine with transplanting, in my experience. I’d wait until fall though, and cut them back hard before you dig them up. Good luck, and happy digging! —Pam