|Salvia spathacea subsp. var.||Crimson sage, Hummingbird sage, Pitcher sage|
Salvia spathacea (Pitcher Sage or Hummingbird sage) is a herbaceous plant species with woody bases and a somewhat sprawling habit with upright flowering stems. Its a member of the large Salvia or sage genus in Lamiaceae, or the mint family. This fruity scented Salvia blooms in March to May with typically dark rose-lilac colored flowers. It is native to southern and central California found growing from sea level to 2,000 feet and is cultivated in gardens for its attractive flowering spikes and pleasant scent.
The Pitcher sage is found in the California coast ranges from the Sacramento Valley south to the San Diego area to the south. A common species that grows on open or shady slopes in oak woodland, chaparral, and coastal sage scrub. It is commonly found in oak woodlands, in moist soils not far from the Pacific Ocean.
S. spathacea is an evergreen, perennial with herbaceous flowering stems from a woody base, growing from 0.3 to 1.5 meters (1-3 feet) tall. When not flowering plants grow less than .5 m (4 to 12 inches) tall forming clumps of sprawling foliage. Unlike most sages, the flowering stems are produced singularly from each plant and only rarely branch. It spreads by rhizomes and can form colonies up to 1.3 m. in diameter. Like many species in the mint family it has very pronounced square stems, and the entire plant is covered with wavy glandular hairs.
Its bright green leaves are 8-20 cm. long, and highly aromatic when crushed or touched. They are oblong to almost arrowhead-shaped at the base, and can be puckered with wrinkles, and have rounded teeth at the leaf edges. Like the rest of the plant, they are covered with hairs which make the plant soft to the touch. The hairs tend to be denser on the bottom surface of the leaves.
The flowers are produced in clustered whorled inflorescences 15-30 cm long and 6 cm diameter on spike-like stems with each node on the top half of the stem having flowers. The inflorescences are subtended by showy bracts which can be ruby red to dark maroon or brown. The calyx is 1.5 to 3 cm. long. It is two-lipped, with the upper lip entire, or unlobed. Each corolla is tubular and 2.5-3.5 cm. long, with 2 lips. The upper lip of the corolla is 7-8 mm., with two shallow lobes, while the lower lip is longer, 10-12 mm. The two fertile stamens are attached to the corolla tube. The style is forked. Both the style and the stamens protrude outside the corolla tube. Flowers vary in color from green through light pink and magenta to purple.
The fruits are 4 nutlets, dark brown to black in color. They are round to ovate, with a length of 3.5 to 6.5 mm.
As the alternative common name suggests, they are used by feeding hummingbirds and will attract them to the garden.
Salvia spathacea is easy to grow in the garden, and is a very useful groundcover for dry shade under oaks. Unlike other California native Salvia, it spreads from underground rhizomes. It will also grow in the open, in ordinary garden soil, in part or even full sun. Supplemental water can help encourage a longer flowering season, but a late summer rest from watering is desirable.
Pests and diseases
Several cultivars exist although some selections are stronger than others. One showy cultivar is "Confetti," which has both yellow and pink flowers on the same plant. The more robust cultivars include "Powerline Pink," with magenta to crimson flowers, which will grow in hot sun, even inland, and "Avis Keedy," which has light yellow flowers.