Silver Sage of the Desert

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This is the first of our monthly Plant Profiles, plants that thrive in the Rocky Mountain region and also provide critical needs for garden wildlife. Thank you, Plant Select®!

Western tiger swallowtails sip nectar from Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphylla). Photo credit: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

Western tiger swallowtail butterflies sip nectar from Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphylla). Photo credit: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

A great pollinator plant for hot, dry gardens

One of the most beloved plants at the acclaimed Gardens at Kendrick Lake in Lakewood, Colorado is Mojave sage, a low, shrubby-type perennial that is stunning nearly all year round. Its pungent, medium-sized silvery leaves are beautiful from spring to very late fall, the color nearly glowing in  the hot sun. As summer temperatures dependably heat up (late June, early July) spikes of intensely hued flowers appear above the shimmering foliage.

Close-up of Mojave sage flowers

Close-up of Mojave sage flowers (Photo credit: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®)

These flowers are a striking combination of purple, rose, mauve, lavender and blue, depending on source of the seed used to produce them. The flowers are particularly interesting because the outer petals (or sepals) are one color and the inner petals are another. The color contrast between the different flower parts, as well as the variability among individual plants, are two more features making this species so astounding.

Female hummingbird drinks on the wing from Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphilla) flowers. Photo credit: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

Female hummingbird drinks on the wing from Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphilla) flowers. Photo credit: Pat Hayward for Plant Select®

A Blatant Advertisement for Pollinators

Butterflies and hummingbirds find these flowers just as attractive, it seems. There’s nothing subtle about the way this sage advertises its nectar-richness with its “sex parts” hanging out in the open – beckoning to pollinators to come and feed.  Long filaments with dangling anthers (male parts) stand above the female parts containing the sweet nectar.  While hovering butterflies and hummingbirds extend their tongues to feed, their legs and wings brush against the pollen, allowing it to fall, thus fertilizing the plant.

Site Characteristics

Native to the western states of California, Nevada and Arizona, Mojave sage often grows in sandy washes and rocky slopes – things to think about when deciding where to grow these plants in garden settings.  Soils must be well-drained, especially in winter to have the best success – add sand and/or gravel to garden soils to help increase drainage if needed. Mojave sage is usually hardy to USDA Zones 5 (-15 to -20°F) but if in doubt, site plants near large rocks or structures to add a bit of additional winter insulation.

Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphylla) in a xeric planting. Photo credit: David Winger for Plant Select®

Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphylla) in a xeric planting. Photo credit: David Winger for Plant Select®

More information:

  • Mojave sage (Salvia pachyphylla)
  • Plant type: Perennial
  • Size: 24-30” tall by 30-36” wide
  • Blooms: mid-summer; purple/lavender/blue
  • Sun: Full sun
  • Water: Dry to xeric (needs no additional irrigation once established)
  • Hardiness: USDA Hardiness Zones 5-9
  • Culture: Well-drained soils are critical.
  • Disadvantages:  Plants becomes rather very woody if not pruned every other year or so (either in fall after flowering, or spring as new leaves emerge). Pungent fragrance from the foliage is also quite strong.

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