by Matt Gibson
A low-maintenance, drought-tolerant shrub, Russian sage has grown in popularity amongst flower gardeners in recent years, and is an excellent choice for xeriscaping. It has a very long blooming period, and is cherished by gardeners who prefer a flower bed that is in bloom throughout the extended growing season. The Russian sage shrub makes panicles of miniature light blue to lavender-hued flowers all through the summer.
As if the beauty of its flowers were not enough to win it a place in the modern flower garden, the stems and leaves of the russian sage, are quite attractive on their own, and in some cases, are the reason why russian sage is cultivated, their flowers holding a secondary role ornamentally. The silver stems of this lovely perennial are so chalky that they appear white from a distance, and are adorned with pretty, feather-like, silver leaves. The shrubs, if pruned annually, will reach a height of four feet, with a spread of about three feet.
Russian sage has fragrant flowers and foliage, but it is the smell of the leaves that attracts pollinators, such as hummingbirds, honey bees, and butterflies. As is the case with many aromatic plants, russian sage is deer and rabbit resistant. Russian sage’s fine texture makes it a fantastic choice for contrasting plants with a coarser texture. It can be planted in clusters along borders and rock gardens. It can be used as a specimen plant if planted with other plants that do not overpower it with incredibly large, or bright showy flowers. With its excellent height and long-blooming time, it can work wonders on the back row of a flower bed.
Don’t Eat Russian Sage
Russian sage is not related to the edible sage varieties and should not be used in cooking, or eaten, due to its slightly poisonous leaves. Russian sage is not considered poisonous, as it would take a great effort to eat enough of it to get sick, but precautions should still be taken to insure the safety of children and small pets. Plant Russian sage in locations that are not easily accessed by children and pets.
Oddly enough, despite the poisonous content in the leaves of the Russian sage plant, the flower, and even the leaves have some culinary use. The flowers of Russian sage have a peppery flavor, and can be added to salads and used as a garnish to beautify meal presentations. Even the leaves, which are slightly toxic, are steeped in certain teas which are believed to help ease digestive discomfort.
Varieties of Russian Sage
There are quite a few varieties of russian sage that can be grown in the modern garden. A few standouts include:
Perovskia Longin, which is a smaller variety of russian sage, with a more rigidly upright disposition, a narrower frame, and slightly larger leaves.
Perovskia Filagran, which is a medium-sized shrub with finely-cut leaves and a light, airy appearance.
Perovskia Little Spire, a dwarf variety that matures at around two feet tall and one and a half to two feet wide.
Growing Conditions for Russian Sage
Russian Sage is hardy to USDA zones five through 10. Provide a location that receives full sunlight exposure. Growing russian sage in partial shade locations will cause the plant to sprawl. Russian sage does not need any extra fancy soil combinations or a particular pH range, just a well-draining medium of average fertility.
Introduce new russian sage plants into the garden in the early spring, giving them each two to three feet of space on each side. Water very sparingly during dry spells until new plants are established. If you want to mulch your sage plants, use a gravel mulch instead of an organic mulch, gravel will be much better for allowing excess surface water to evaporate more quickly.
Care of Russian Sage
Russian sage is drought-resistant, and it thrives in dry soil, so it rarely needs manual watering once it is established. Only in cases of extreme drought and excessive heat should you need to offer your russian sage plants a drink. Russian sage does not require much fertilizer either, but it will need a small amount of nutrients very seldomly. Every other year, around late fall, amend your soil with a handful of general purpose fertilizer or a shovelful of compost.
North of USDA zone 6, protect your russian sage from winter’s temperature drops by mulching the base of your russian sage plants with a two inch layer of pine needles. Keep the pine needles in place until early spring, removing them when new growth begins to emerge.
Russian sage is a tough plant which needs very little in terms of maintenance and care. As they are somewhat tall, when grown individually, they may need some form of support (such as staking or a peony ring) to keep it from flopping over. If grown in groups, the plants tend to support each other and keep themselves upright. For this reason, they work well in patches in the center, or back wall of a flower bed. The primary care issue with russian sage is pruning, which is optional, and is discussed in detail in the pruning section below.
Russian sage is a member of the mint family and spreads by runners. Gardeners will need to monitor and remove russian sage runners from places that they don’t want it to spread or it will take over a garden area very quickly. Pull up suckers in the early spring. Divide plants every four to six years, which will refresh and invigorate them.
How To Propagate Russian Sage
Russian sage should be propagated every four to six years by division. Divide the clumps or take cuttings in the spring. Dividing will help reinvigorate the plants and help to control their tendency to spread aggressively.
How To Prune Russian Sage
Many gardeners choose to prune their russian sage annually in order to make the plant grow bushier as a result. While pruning, cut off any dead branches and keep the inner rows of branches as tidy as possible. Prune russian sage back in early or mid-spring. The reason why you should wait until spring to prune the russian sage back instead of trimming in the fall is because the silver branches add a nice touch to the winter landscape if left alone. Additionally, if you trim in the fall and don’t get a hard freeze, the plant could start producing new growth, which could easily be killed by a hard freeze.
There are two basic trimming strategies used to prune the russian sage. One method is to prune the plant down to within a few inches of the ground in early spring and leave it to regrow however it chooses to naturally. Alternatively, you can wait until mid-spring and allow the plant stems to start to fill in amply with leaves. Dead stems will stick out like a sore thumb as they will be the limbs that aren’t filling in with leaves, and you can cut them off. Then, decide which remaining branches you want to prune and which ones you want to keep. You could start with stems that are one foot tall and make your cut at one foot. The taller the plant is in the beginning of spring, the taller it will become by fall.
Garden Pests and Diseases of Russian Sage
Aside from an occasional bout with root rot, which can be avoided by growing the plants in an area with good drainage, russian sage is not susceptible to known disease or pest issues. Don’t expose russian sage to pesticides used in other parts of the garden, as it tends to attract bees and butterflies that could be harmed by the chemicals.
Common Questions and Answers About Russian Sage
Can you eat Russian sage plant?
Russian sage is poisonous and should not be eaten. It is not related to the sage used as a culinary herb, though it is a distant relative of mint.
Can Russian sage grow in part shade?
The optimal location for growing Russian sage is one that gets full sun (at least six hours of sunlight per day), but the plant can tolerate partial shade as well.
Can you grow Russian sage from cuttings?
Propagate Russian sage by taking cuttings in May or June from the softwood, or the current year’s newest growth, using sterilized shears. Make your cutting about four to six inches, and slice just below a leaf node. Strip the bottom two inches of the cutting of foliage. Treat the cut end with rooting hormone before planting in a container with a potting blend or a mixture of peat, perlite, and vermiculite. Use a pencil to poke a hole in the soil about two inches deep, and place the bottom end of the cutting into the hole, firming the soil around it. Water deeply, until the water drips from the drainage holes in the container. Prop a clear plastic bag over the container with long sticks to help keep the soil moist. The root system will develop in a few weeks, and then the cutting is ready to be transplanted into your garden.
Do bees like Russian sage?
Russian sage attracts pollinators, including bees, butterflies, and hover flies.
Does Russian sage come back every year?
Whether or not your Russian sage will come back in the spring depends on the climate where you live and how cold it got the previous winter. If your area will get below freezing for any substantial period of time or you live outside the USDA hardiness zones for Russian sage (4 to 9), you may consider storing your plants for winter or protecting your plants against the cold. A Russian sage plant that has died back during the winter can sprout the next spring, with new growth emerging from the crown, where roots and stems meet, and from the stems. Encourage new growth by trimming your Russian sage plant so the stems are less than 12 inches after all threat of frost has passed in the spring. Cut back again as the weather turns cold for winter to six to 12 inches. However, gardeners in the coldest areas that grow Russian sage should leave the stems in place over the winter.
Does Russian sage reseed itself?
Russian sage does sometimes reseed itself in the garden. You can encourage reseeding by letting your plants grow all season instead of trimming them back. Instead of waiting for reseeding, you can also propagate new plants from softwood cuttings taken in May and June.
How deep are Russian sage roots?
The root ball of a mature Russian sage plant averages about one foot deep.
How do you fertilize Russian sage?
Feed Russian sage once a year, after pruning the plant in the spring, using three tablespoons of slow release 5-10-5 fertilizer sprinkled around the base of the plants.
How do you winterize Russian sage?
Prepare Russian sage for winter by watering deeply in late autumn. Then spread two or three inches of mulch, such as pine needles or shredded bark. In especially cold parts of the growing zones for Russian sage (4 to 9), skip the early winter pruning to allow the plant to conserve energy instead of creating vulnerable new growth.
How often do you water Russian sage?
Water young Russian sage plants weekly to a depth of one inch until the plants are well established. You can check the moisture level by simply inserting a finger into the soil where your Russian sage is growing. If soil clings to your finger, it is still moist. After plants are well established, which generally takes about a year, they only need to be watered in periods of drought. Gardeners in especially cold areas can give a deep watering in late fall to help prepare Russian sage for winter.
How many hours of sun does Russian sage need?
Russian sage does best in full sun, which is at least six hours of sunlight per day, but it can tolerate partial shade as well.
Is Russian sage invasive?
Russian sage is not listed as invasive in the National Invasive Species Database. However, some gardeners have reported a tendency to spread, and Russian sage does reseed under the right conditions.
Is Russian sage poisonous to humans?
Though Russian sage is poisonous, it would be difficult and unlikely for an adult to consume enough to cause a harmful reaction. Still, it is best to keep the plant out of reach of pets and children, because it is toxic at large doses.
Is Russian sage toxic to dogs?
Russian sage is toxic at large doses and should be grown out of the reach of children and pets if you think they might try to eat it. It would be difficult to eat enough to cause serious injury.
Should Russian sage be cut back?
Prune the stems of Russian sage back to 12 inches in the spring when all danger of frost has passed. Optionally, you can prune after the first wave of flowering to encourage another round of blossoms. Prune Russian sage again as the weather turns for winter, cutting them to six to 12 inches.
Should Russian sage be deadheaded?
Russian sage does not need to be deadheaded. However, trimming back the faded growth after the first bloom can sometimes encourage the plant to bloom again.
Where is Russian sage from?
In spite of its name and the fact it was discovered by a Russian botanist, Russian sage is not native to Russia. It grows in Central Asia and Tibet at heights up to 8,000 feet.
Want to learn more about growing Russian Sage?
Better Homes & Gardens covers Russian Sage
doityourself covers Dangers of Growing Russian Sage
National Gardening Association covers Russian Sages
Gardening in the Mitten covers Russian Sage
Gardening Know How covers Russian Sage Care
HGTV covers Russian Sage Plants
SFGate Homeguides covers Maintaining Russian Sage
HoneyBee Suite covers Russian Sage for Your Pollinator Garden
Hunker covers Uses for Russian Sage
Garden Guides covers How is Russian Sage Poisonous?
Get Busy Gardening covers Pruning Russian Sage
The Morton Arboretum covers Russian Sage
University of Wisconsin-Madison covers Russian Sage