What is Russian Sage?

Mary McMahon

Russian sage is a flowering perennial also known as Perovskia atriplicifolia or simply “Perovskia.” This plant is famous for its hardiness, making it popular with gardeners who work in harsh environments. Russian sage is ideal for low-water gardening, landscaping in high traffic areas like freeway embankments, and for gardening in areas with very poor soil conditions. It grows readily in USDA zones five through nine, and sometimes in even cooler regions, under the right conditions.

Russian sage can grow in chalky soil.
Russian sage can grow in chalky soil.

Despite the name, Russian sage isn't from Russia. It is native to Afghanistan and Pakistan, two nations famous for their dry environments and chalky, heavily acidic soil. Thanks to its native environment, Russian sage prefers soil where most other plants will not grow, especially rocky soil in hot climates. It also enjoys being blasted by the sun, and will in fact become droopy if it does not get enough sun.

This plant is usually classified as a “subshrub,” developing woody stems with herbaceous tips which harden as they mature. The stems of Russian sage are square in cross-section, and the plant produces protruding panicles (a horticulturist's way of saying spikes) of purple flowers in the late summer and early fall. The flowers have a velvety texture, as do the silvery to gray leaves. Russian sage is also deciduous, losing its foliage in the fall except in temperate zones.

Several cultivars of Russian sage have been developed, including plants with lacy foliage, and plants with flowers which are more blue than purple. This plant does best in group plantings, rather than as a standalone plant, and, as mentioned above, it prefers full sun. Russian sage can make an excellent shrubby border for flower beds, or it can work as a filler in larger gardens. It also requires minimal water, and should not be mulched, as this can cause the roots and lower branches to rot.

Some garden supply stores sell starts of Russian sage starts, and gardeners who happen to be acquainted with people who are growing this plant can ask for cuttings. Cuttings can be started in water until they root before being transplanted to peat pots to establish themselves, at which point they can be moved to the garden. When planting Russian sage, gardeners should be aware that the plant spreads outward as well as upward, so it is important to give seedlings some room to grow, with at least an arm's length between plants.

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