Scientific name: Salvia spathacea
Plant type: Perennial herb
Environment: Full sun
Bloom: Magenta flowers in tightly clustered whorls
California is considered a global biodiversity hotspot due to its high number of native species. There are thousands of native and endemic plant species in California, including Salvia spathacea. Salvia spathacea, or hummingbird sage, is a small perennial endemic throughout California. The species occurs in the wild from the Sacramento Valley in Northern California to northern San Diego County at elevations from sea level to 2000 ft. It is found most often near the coast growing in oak woodlands, scrubland, and chaparral habitats.
A member of the mint (Lamiaceae) family, hummingbird sage has fragrant leaves due to ethereal oils that release an odor when crushed or rubbed. This scent varies throughout the plant family, but the leaves of hummingbird sage have a fruity fragrance. The Chumash people, an indigenous group in California, would also use the leaves to treat a variety of illnesses.
The magenta flowers of hummingbird sage, in addition to copious amounts of nectar within, are very attractive to hummingbirds, hence the common name. They are also popular with other pollinators, such as bees and butterflies. The flowers are arranged in tight whorls that decrease in size as they go up the stem. Some say this gives the plants a pagoda like shape. These inflorescences are borne on square shaped stems, a common feature of the mint family.
Hummingbird sage has a sprawling habit and spreads by rhizome making it an excellent ground cover. This is an uncommon method of spread for sages. These rhizomes also increase the species’ drought tolerance. In dry times the plants can die back to the ground, and the rhizomes act as underground storage structures that will allow the plant to regenerate when conditions are appropriate.
Though it is a native, Salvia spathacea did not make its way into cultivation until the 1940s when it was first sold by Theodore Payne, a horticulturist and advocate for California native plants.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text and Photos by Victoria Stewart