Black Sage (Salvia mellifera)

I made a discovery today. After having enjoyed my native plant garden for 10 years, I just now might have found the answer to the old puzzling question that I get on many of my nature walks: why is black sage called black? We have white sage with whitish leaves, we have purple sage with purple flowers, and we have black sage with white or lavender flowers and green foliage, so why is it called BLACK sage? 

Well, after having handled black sage twigs and leaves, dry flower stalks and broken branches for two hours, my left hand (I was holding the clippers with my right hand) was literally black. Not just dirty brown, no, absolutely black.  Black sage is somewhat sticky, not quite as sticky as the more fragrant white sage, but stickier than the more grayish purple sage, which is very similar to the Cleveland sage. The resinous glands must produce this black film that covered my hand. It came off with soap and water and a hand brush, and some fair amount of scrubbing.

The reason why I hadn’t noticed this curious quality before might be that I usually do my trimming more casually, moving from shrub to shrub, clip a branch here, a few twigs there, head off some flower stalks on the next plant, but really do not work at any one plant for any length of time. I like to do the trimming the way the plant would be browsed by animals in its native habitat, and do the pruning the way it would be pruned by gusty winds from the Santa Ana’s.

IMG6_0316 for blogToday, I focused on the three black sage shrubs that are in my front yard, each of them “volunteers” that seeded themselves from earlier plantings. One is getting almost as big as the “granddaddy” that became more than six feet tall and just as wide, so big that it seemed it was overtaking the whole front yard. I took that huge one out just because of its size.  I failed to rein it in while it was young and shapeable. But just like an old person or old dog, it’s hard to shape a mature black sage bush.  So I sacrificed it, under tears (yes, I cry for my plants) and counted on its seedlings to keep me blessed with this wonderful shrub.  It is soothingly fragrant, and while not outstandingly showy, it is reliably attractive all year round, with just a little bit of water. It’ll survive a drought in the wild without lasting damage, but if you want it green all through the dry season, just give it some water every two weeks and you’ll enjoy its foliage all year round. No other shrub attracts more beneficial insects, birds, and butterflies in my garden than do the black sage shrubs.  They are just now ending their flowering, after having provided their small but plentiful flowers for several months now.  There is not a day that I don’t see some critter in or about the black sage. And none of the critters that I find there have ever harmed me. There might be honey bees galore but I have moved around them, and among them, and they always have found the sage flowers much more attractive than me.  

The other two sages are much smaller, only about 3 feet tall. One appears to be a hybrid between a groundcover and a regular shrub. That one is near the border to my neighbor to the west, and it has turned out to be a quite attractive hedge, shapeable, getting trimmed by the neighbor and me at any time, and providing habitat to birds and lizards, butterflies, and native bees.   

The trimming I did this morning was not hard yard work, to me, it was like working on a piece of art: finding its natural shape, carefully untangling the twigs and leggy branchlets, giving it light to grow in my preferred fashion, cutting out the deceased, and preparing it for the next season.  Even though the sun shone, it was satisfying and fulfilling, on soothing to my hurried soul.

It’s a little early in the year to do major trimming or pruning. I usually wait until late fall, leaving the fruits and seeds to provide food for wildlife, but this year, I decided to this early in the season. But I made sure to leave some of the dry flower stalks that give an artistic character to the native garden and food for the birds.

 Gabi

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3 comments to Black Sage (Salvia mellifera)

  • Arvind

    I always wondered why black sage was called black, and now I know. Thanks. It is one of my favorite shrubs for the garden. I have one that is 9 years old, next to a bench in the backyard. I love the fragrance. It looks dormant in late summer, so for interest, I have planted a chaparral clematis at its feet. I hope to have cotton puff balls adorning the black sage in future summers.

  • jan huffman

    Im sad.
    I have been nuturing my cleveland sage for 3 years glorious years.
    Sadly I realized I needed to take the plunge and cut my dear plant back.
    yes it took me 2 hrs because i talk to my plants like old friends. Should I cut here etc………
    NOW Its DEAD! She was huge . Im sick about it I don’t know what to do.

  • So sorry about your loss. I know it feels awful to lose one of those beauties.
    To be on the safe side, I don’t like to prune my native shrubs by more than 10% at one time, and I prune them in the dormant period, like right now, in September. But maybe your sage is just dormant and will come back in the spring! Don’t give up on her quite yet.
    Gabi

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