A Sage Made for the Shade

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Sticky sage (Salvia glutinosa)

Gardeners use quite a few sages in their gardens: the culinary herb common sage (Salvia officinalis), the various perennial sages, all long-blooming (mostly S. nemorosa, S. sylvestris and their hybrids), plus many sages grown as annuals in northern regions and as subshrubs regions in the South, such as scarlet sage ( S. splendens) and mealy sage (S. farinosa). However, few gardeners seem to know sticky sage (S. glutinosa), also called Jupiter’s distaff.

It’s a very hardy perennial sage (zone 3) that grows and blooms in dry shade. Yes, in dense shade, among abundant and shallow tree roots. And it blooms for over 2 months as well: quite a performance!

Sticky sage’s tolerance of atrocious conditions is remarkable. It can grow in almost any well-drained soil, even in alkaline ones. It sails right through most droughts without even wilting. Also, although it is used mostly in shade gardens because it grows so well there, it does just as well in partial shade and will even grow in full sun.

It’s a shrubby perennial with medium green arrowhead-shaped leaves, already attractive in their own right, that reaches about 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 cm in height and diameter.

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Sticky sage flower with its two arching lips.

The flowers are borne in whorls on upright, sometimes slightly arching spikes borne well above the foliage. They are pale yellow with a lower lip marbled brown… something you’ll only notice close up; from a distance, the flower appears entirely pale yellow. The shape of the flower is curious, with two very long, curved lips, looking much like a wide-open bird’s beak.

Bloom lasts 2 months and more, but the flowering seasons varies according to your conditions. In zones 8 and above, it can start blooming as early as late spring and will bloom right through the summer. In colder climates, it flowers much later. In my zone 3 garden, for example, it doesn’t begin blooming until late August, but then continues until frost, sometimes as late as November.

The name sticky sage refers to the sticky glandular hairs found on leaves and stems, and indeed, even the flowers, giving the plant a clammy feeling when you touch it. Their stickiness is believed to protect the plant from predators and indeed sometimes you’ll find insects stuck on them. Certainly deer don’t like sticky sage, nor to rabbits. The glands also leaves give off a pleasant smell if you rub them or even all on their own on a hot day. The essential oil derived from the leaves is said to have medicinal properties and is also used as a flavoring in some countries of its native Europe.

A Bit Invasive

The glutinous sage is not without its flaws, however, as under conditions to its liking, it can reseed abundantly.

If you are one of those gardeners who prefer plants that remain exactly where you put them, simply don’t plant sticky sage: you won’t like its vagabond habit.

If however you appreciate a more natural look in a garden, such as an English-style flower border or a naturalized woodland garden, you’ll probably appreciate this characteristic. After all, a plant that manages to not only grow in dry shade, but even to fill in empty spots, there is a rare find. Even so, you may sometimes have to remove a few stray seedlings that really are not where you want them to be.

Where to Buy Sticky Sage

Here’s the real rub. This plant is very rarely offered in garden centers. Probably no nurseries in your area will will have it. It’s just one of those plants you have to get by mail order. In Canada, you can find it at Fraser’s Thimble Farms and Vivaces de l’Île. In the US, try Plant Delights Nursery. And Chiltern Seeds in England offers its seeds to gardeners around the world.

If you know of other sources, let me know and I will add them to this blog.

Other Yellow-Flowered Sages

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Salvia nipponica ‘Fuji Snow’. Photo: Plants Delight Nursery.

I know of at least two other sages with pale yellow flowers that grow well in the shade. They are very similar to the sticky sage in most aspects, but smaller, less hardy and later blooming: S. koyamae (zone 5) and S. nipponica (zone 6-7). S. nipponica ‘Fuji Snow’, with variegated foliage, is particularly charming, but is no where near hardy enough for my conditions, so I’ll leave it to gardeners from mild climates to try!20160820A

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