By: Laura Miller
If you’re looking for that special plant for a dry shady spot in the flower garden, you might consider growing hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea). This attractive member of the mint family is native to the coastal areas of California. As one might guess from the name, the plant has pitcher shaped flowers which attract hummingbirds.
Hummingbird Sage Facts
Hummingbird sage is cultivated for its attractive burgundy flowers and aromatic fruit scented leaves. This perennial has a woody base and herbaceous flowering stems which tend to be square shaped, like other members of the mint family. The stems, as well as the bright green leaves of the plant, are covered with fuzz.
This spring blooming plant typically reaches a mature height of around 12-36 inches (30-91 cm.) tall. It grows happily in partial to full shade and is hardy in USDA zones: 8 through 11.
How to Plant Hummingbird Sage
Growing hummingbird sage is very easy. It requires very little care other than the occasional pruning to maintain its shape. Deadheading the spent flower stalks also helps keeps the garden looking tidy. Hummingbird sage prefers a shady location and grows well under the thick canopy of shade trees. Once the plants are established, it’s quite drought resistant.
Hummingbird sage can be propagated by seeds or root division. No special treatment of seeds is needed to prompt germination. It’s best to sow seeds directly into the garden in the fall. When dividing its rhizomatous root system, select healthy root stock which contains one or more rhizomes and growth buds.
Hummingbird Sage Uses
In addition to its ability to attract pollinators, this plant makes an excellent ground cover under trees and in shady island gardens. Its scented foliage makes it unattractive to deer, yet is pleasantly aromatic for the gardener.
It pairs well with coral bells and other members of the Salvia genus when creating a hummingbird or butterfly garden.
In addition to the native plant bearing burgundy flowers, gardeners can experiment with several cultivars of hummingbird sage to bring color variation to their flower beds:
- Avis Keedy – Canary yellow
- Cerro Alto – Apricot
- Confetti -Yellow and red
- Las Pilitas – Deep pink
- Powerline pink – Deep pink
- Sunrise – Yellow fades to white
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The pitcher sage is found in the California coast ranges from the Sacramento Valley south to the San Diego area. It is a common species that grows on open or shady slopes in moist oak woodland, chaparral, and coastal sage scrub not far from the Pacific Ocean.  
Salvia spathacea is an evergreen perennial with flowering stems growing from a woody base, 30–150 cm (12–59 in) tall. When not flowering plants grow less than 50 cm (20 in) tall, forming clumps of sprawling foliage. Each plant produces a single flowering stem which rarely branches.  It spreads by rhizomes and can form colonies up to 130 cm (51 in) in diameter.  Like many species in the mint family it has very pronounced square stems, and the entire plant is covered with wavy glandular hairs.
Its bright green leaves are 8–20 cm. long, and highly aromatic when crushed or touched.  They are oblong to almost arrowhead-shaped at the base, and can be puckered with wrinkles, and have rounded teeth at the leaf edges.  Like the rest of the plant, they are covered with hairs which make the plant soft to the touch. The hairs tend to be denser on the bottom surface of the leaves.
The flowers are produced in clustered whorled inflorescences 15–30 cm (6–12 in) long and 6 cm in diameter on spike-like stems with each node on the top half of the stem having flowers. The inflorescences are subtended by showy bracts which can be ruby red to dark maroon or brown. The calyx is 1.5 to 3 cm. long.  It is two-lipped, with the upper lip entire, or unlobed. Each corolla is tubular and 2.5-3.5 cm. long, with 2 lips. The upper lip of the corolla is 7–8 mm., with two shallow lobes, while the lower lip is longer, 10–12 mm.  The two fertile stamens are attached to the corolla tube. The style is forked. Both the style and the stamens protrude outside the corolla tube.  Flowers vary in color from green through light pink and magenta to purple.
The fruits are 4 nutlets, dark brown to black in color. They are round to ovate, with a length of 3.5 to 6.5 mm. 
Salvia spathacea is easy to grow in the garden, and is a very useful groundcover for dry shade under oaks. Unlike other California native sages, it spreads from underground rhizomes. It will also grow in the open, in ordinary garden soil, in part or even full sun. Supplemental water can help encourage a longer flowering season, but a late summer rest from watering is desirable. As the alternative common name suggests, it is used by feeding hummingbirds and will attract them to the garden. Deer and gophers generally leave this strongly aromatic plant alone.
It easily propagates by seeds or rhizomes. Seeds should be collected as early as possible, or they can be predated by insects. S. spathacea can get powdery mildew, which can be treated with a spray of milk diluted in water. Several cultivars exist although some selections are stronger than others. One showy cultivar is "Confetti," which has both yellow and pink flowers on the same plant. The more robust cultivars include "Powerline Pink," with magenta to crimson flowers, which will grow in hot sun, even inland, and "Avis Keedy," which has light yellow flowers.
Salvia Species, Blood Sage, Hummingbird Sage, Scarlet Sage, Texas Sage
|Family:||Lamiaceae (lay-mee-AY-see-ee) (Info)|
|Genus:||Salvia (SAL-vee-uh) (Info)|
|Species:||coccinea (kok-SIN-ee-uh) (Info)|
|Synonym:||Salvia coccinea f. pseudococcinea|
|Synonym:||Salvia coccinea var. pseudococcinea|
Tropicals and Tender Perennials
USDA Zone 7b: to -14.9 °C (5 °F)
USDA Zone 8a: to -12.2 °C (10 °F)
USDA Zone 8b: to -9.4 °C (15 °F)
USDA Zone 9a: to -6.6 °C (20 °F)
USDA Zone 9b: to -3.8 °C (25 °F)
USDA Zone 10a: to -1.1 °C (30 °F)
USDA Zone 10b: to 1.7 °C (35 °F)
Soil pH requirements:
From seed sow indoors before last frost
Self-sows freely deadhead if you do not want volunteer seedlings next season
Bag seedheads to capture ripening seed
This plant is attractive to bees, butterflies and/or birds
Average Water Needs Water regularly do not overwater
Where to Grow:
Grow outdoors year-round in hardiness zone
Can be grown as an annual
This plant is said to grow outdoors in the following regions:
Saraland, Alabama(2 reports)
China Lake Acres, California
Zephyrhills, Florida(2 reports)
Princeton Junction, New Jersey
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
Greensboro, North Carolina
Simpsonville, South Carolina
Fort Worth, Texas(3 reports)
San Antonio, Texas(2 reports)
These grew extremely slow for me and only flowered in rich, loose, soil putting off their best show as late as November. They did poorly in clay soil areas. The seeds which received more sun flowered a month sooner and developed multiple, taller flower stalks. Hummingbirds visited them but not as much as hot lips salvia and David Cuphea.
On Aug 11, 2013, Bazuhi from Downers Grove, IL (Zone 5a) wrote:
August 2013(First time growing this plant)
I purchased the seeds from Onalee's seeds last fall and started them indoors prior to planting outside this spring since we can have a short growing season. I had no issues starting the seeds indoor which I was very happy as I am not the greatest seed starter. I relocted them outside in a bunch of different planting areas, some are in huge pots, others are in the ground and with different sun lighting just so I can see how they do. No fertilizing and minimal watering.
After a while they do take off and they do get tall so they are more of a back of the flower bed plant. They do come up with many stalks of flower heads but if your looking for that huge color that pops out like Salvia does you may be disappointed.
The humming. read more birds do visit this plant in my yard so I am happy since that is why I originally planted it. I am hoping to actually have successful reseeding but with the condition of my soil I am not holding my breath. I will certianly be starting seeds again for next year and may experiment with some indoors and others directly into soil in an old vege garden where once growing I can relocate them to where I want them.
On May 10, 2013, TexasDollie from Dewey, AZ (Zone 7a) wrote:
It does reseed easily--I find it sprouting in other places around the beds. But the hummingbirds love it, so if the new plant grows in a good place, what's not to love? If it grows in the wrong place, it's easy to pull out and toss. I got my starts from the shady side of our post-oak savannah yard, just south of San Antonio, where it grew to 18" high or so. Moved them to the sunny flower beds along the front of the house where they thrived and brightened for several years. I've since brought seeds to the new place we live in and will plant them in a spot out back under the Arizona Ash. Guess I'll see how they do in this heavy black clay as opposed to the sand where I found them.
On Apr 14, 2012, trackinsand from mid central, FL (Zone 9a) wrote:
what everyone else said and oh my, it does re-seed! i have them everywhere. mine are growing throughout the garden. some are in full sun and some have come up under other plants and get more shade. it doesn't seem to matter. they just keep going. the original plants did die over the last winter even though it was a very mild one.
i'm changing my rating. this plant would be great treated as an annual out of its hardiness zone but i have to say that it is a garden THUG in a warm zone. it re-seeds faster than you can pull them and grows so fast that it totally crowds out everything in its path. i just filled a trash can with plants and that was in one small bed. it will probably take years to eliminate it completely. or maybe never. time will tell.
On Jan 26, 2011, sunkissed from Winter Springs, FL (Zone 9b) wrote:
I bought one plant many years ago and now my yard is full of them, they reseed and are very hardy. They even grow in the cracks of my patio stones, I just pull them up and put them in a pot and they continue to grow. I've given many away to friends. The bright scarlet red flowers are the first to bloom each year, in fact it is the end of January and I have a bloom on one now. They will freeze if out in the open, but if under plant/tree canopy or close the house they over winter very well. Easily can be pulled up where you don't want it or move it to where you do. Blooms all year but does seem to prefer shadier areas than the full sun. I love this plant.
On Jul 23, 2010, IvoryBill from Magnolia, TX wrote:
I bought this plant at a hummingbird festival last fall and overwintered it in a pot in the garage with minimal care, and this summer it is blooming like crazy and about three feet high and covered with flowers
On Nov 7, 2009, jimenez from West Palm Beach, FL (Zone 10a) wrote:
I have this plant all over my yard. It reseeds and I just pull the seedlings out of the ground where I find them and I place them where I want. They grow well in pots, in the shade and in full sun. I just pinch them if I want the plant to fill out a bit. This plant is so easy to grow in south Florida so I have started collecting salvias. None of the salvias I have purchased is as easy and carefree as this great plant.
On Nov 5, 2009, lehua_mc from Portland, OR (Zone 8b) wrote:
In Portland, the Hummingbird Sage still has flowers in early November, a bonus for the birds themselves. I planted it in a very hot southern exposure in composted soil, however I hope it seeds in the dry clay nearby.
On Jun 22, 2009, phineas117 from Springfield, IL wrote:
had never tried this before. even with a cool, very wet spring.
the plant just took off. have had my very first anna hummingbird around all the blooms.
a GREAT plant
On Aug 11, 2007, ltcollins1949 from Rockport, TX wrote:
This is a great hummer plant, but it is very invasive in south Texas. It comes up everywhere including cracks in the drive way. I pull the stuff up all the time and throw it away. The pink and white Salvia Coccinias are not as invasive. Keep it under control if you live in a hot climate or throw it out in a field and let it go.
On Apr 22, 2007, htop from San Antonio, TX (Zone 8b) wrote:
This plant needs part shade to shade in my location. Jowever, with too much shade, it does not bloom profusely. It needs spaced from 1 foot to 2 feet apart. It is a native plant that can be found growing in woodlands and hilly slopes in the Edwards Plateau Region of Texas as well as other poarts of east and south Texas. I have found that it perforns better in poorer drier soil otherwise, it becomes leggy, the leaves become speckled with light green spots and the blooms are fewer. It has a high deer resistance due to the pumgent odor of its leaves. It is a short lived perennial that reeed profusely. To encourage fullness, prune it removing the top half at the end of May. After the first frost has browned its leaves or in mid-winter, cut it to about 3" from the ground. It is one of my . read more best butterfly attractors.
On Apr 14, 2007, subzerox2 from Gaithersburg, MD wrote:
Grows quickly and has attractive red blooms. I initially planted a mass of them after reading about their ability to attract hummingbirds. Interestingly enough, while I did notice the resident hummingbirds checking the red blooms out ever so briefly, they seemed to quickly bypass them in favor of dining on the red monarda not far away.
However I was quite pleasantly surprised when I saw that these salvia had attracted the first tiger swallowtail I've seen in my garden! There would be one or two tiger swallowtails at the "lady in red" salvia patch daily during the summer and they'd stay for seemingly hours. Bees also tended to visit in frequency.
On Jun 12, 2006, GeorgiaJo from Dallas, GA (Zone 7b) wrote:
Beautiful, easy to grow and aromatic (minty). Self-seeds reliably. Hummers and butterflies love it. Blooms early.
On Nov 9, 2003, dogbane from New Orleans, LA (Zone 9a) wrote:
Carefree native (Louisiana) often found growing in harsh environments like roadsides, but frequently seen also in woodland and marsh edges. A favorite of hummingbirds.
On Nov 8, 2003, TerriFlorida from Plant City, FL wrote:
I've grown S. coccinea for more than ten years. The one I have is brilliant red, and proved tougher than the pink form. I just bought the white form, and so far it is doing great, but the jury's still out for it.
Texas sage is tough and tolerant. Here in west central Florida it is perennial, and reliably so. At my old place, I left a plant that was at least nine years old, growing happily in partial shade (afternoon sun) under a Valencia orange tree.
I didn't have to try to pot one to bring to the new place, I knew a seedling would come up in a pot of something else. One less pot to move was GOOD. I found three, and they were very welcome. The seedlings are easy to pull where you don't want them, and easy to move to where you do. They much prefer good drainage. read more and better dirt, and grow best in six hours of direct sun.
If you like red, and you like red during all warm months, this is a good plant to have. It is one of about a dozen plants I wouldn't garden without.
On Jan 9, 2003, ButterflyGardnr from Orlando, FL (Zone 9b) wrote:
This plant is well-suited for xeriscaping being drought-tolerant. The natural form has an intense red blossom which hummingbirds and butterflies love. It is very striking when planted in large groupings. It is considered a short-lived perennial and will reseed itself. Pruning of the spent flowers will promote flowering.
On May 20, 2002, bmuller from Albuquerque, NM (Zone 7a) wrote:
It is easy to grow, reseeds, and blooms from July until frost.
Approximately 18" X 18". Reseeding tender perennial. May be sheared to keep shorter. Very easy to grow. In Texas, we usually treat it as an annual.
BUSHES AND VINES FOR HUMMINGBIRDS
Spilled Wine weigela. Photo by: Proven Winners.
Early summer blooms cover the shrub in shades from palest pink to a true red, and foliage that may be variegated, green, gold, or a rich plum. Small spaces can take advantage of newer compact varieties, while larger landscapes will appreciate the many taller options available. Weigela thrive in full sun and average soil, are drought tolerant once established, and rarely bothered by deer.
2 to 6 feet tall and 3 to 5 feet wide
Plants to Try:
Oregon grape. Photo by: Karen Chapman.
Pacific Northwest homeowners are often delighted to discover Anna’s hummingbirds overwintering in their garden, when the blooms of Oregon grape (Mahonia spp.) are an important food source. This evergreen shrub has holly-like leaves and yellow shuttlecock-type flowers in winter, followed by edible blue berries. Preferring partial shade, these do well even in dry soil.
12 inches to 10 feet tall, 2 feet to 8 feet wide
Plants to Try:
‘Charity’, ‘Arthur Menzies’, ‘Soft Caress’, creeping mahonia, ‘Marvel’
‘Riccartonii’ hardy fuchsia. Photo by: Peter Turner Photography / Shutterstock.
This flowering shrub is an easy-care addition to your hummingbird garden. Most are frost hardy and add a bold splash of color to a woodland garden or shady courtyard, especially if you select one of the varieties with golden foliage. A cold winter may kill the shrub to the ground, but it will quickly emerge in spring from the base.
2 to 6 feet tall and 2 to 6 feet wide. Mature size and hardiness vary with variety.
Plants to Try:
Bloom-A-Thon® White azalea. Photo by: Proven Winners.
Few shrubs can rival azaleas for color in spring—a back-of-the-border showstopper or a compact reblooming evergreen foundation shrub. Azaleas thrive in acidic, moisture retentive, well-drained soil.
3 to 6 feet tall and 3 to 5 feet wide.
Plants to Try:
Bloom -A-Thon® series, Encore® series, ‘Northern Lights’ series, ‘Girard’ series
King Edward VII’ flowering currant. Photo by: Gabriela Beres / Shutterstock.
Possibly one of the easiest shrubs to grow, this drought tolerant, deer resistant, deciduous shrub is native to the western United States and Canada. They attract hummingbirds by the dozen, so be sure to place this large shrub where you can enjoy the early spring display of flowers. Suitable for open shade or sunnier locations.
3 to 10 feet tall and 3 to 10 feet wide
Plants to Try:
‘King Edward VII’, ‘Elk River Red’, ‘Pokey’s Pink’
Double Take Orange flowering quince. Photo by: Proven Winners
Flowering quince (Chaenomeles speciosa) makes a bold statement in early spring, each branch studded with clusters of small rose-like blossoms. There are new, thornless, and more compact varieties available that could even be used in a container garden. Flower colors range from palest pink to deepest crimson.
4 to 8 feet tall and 3 to 8 feet wide
Plants to Try:
Orange Jubilee esperanza. Photo by: sarawut muensang / Shutterstock
A large shrub that can be used for screening or boundary planting, yellow bells (Tecoma stans) is native to the southern United States through South America. Many homeowners prefer the newer, more compact hybrids. Hummingbirds love the yellow, orange, or apricot blooms. These shrubs need regular water and full sun to thrive.
3 to 25 feet tall and 3 to 20 feet wide
Plants to Try:
‘Orange Jubilee’ (pictured), ‘Gold Star’, ‘Sierra Apricot’
Photo by: Stephen Orsillo / Shutterstock
This fast-growing vine needs to be grown on a large, sturdy structure to support its considerable weight. The species may also sucker profusely, which in addition to its self-seeding tendencies has resulted in it being declared invasive in some areas (check with your local extension office before planting). Plant in full sun and average to lean soils.
25 to 40 feet tall and 5 to 10 feet wide
Plants to Try:
Flava, Balboa Sunset®, ‘Atropurpurea’
‘Dropmore Scarlet’. Photo by: Tpt / Shutterstock
Trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens) is native to the eastern U.S. and does not produce an abundance of seed, like Japanese honeysuckle. Easily grown in average soil with the best flower production in full sun. Fragrant flowers are followed by red berries that several birds enjoy. Primary bloom time is late spring with sporadic flowering until fall. Depending on the climate, may be deciduous, semi-evergreen, or evergreen.
8 to 20 feet tall and 3 to 6 feet wide
Plants to Try:
‘Dropmore Scarlet’ (pictured), ‘Magnifica’
Cypress Vine. Photo by: Indochina Studio / Shutterstock
An annual in colder climates, a re-seeding perennial in more temperate regions, and considered an invasive weed in southeastern U.S., cypress vine (Ipomoea quamoclit) is a twining vine with delicate, feathery foliage and tubular, star-shaped red blossoms that hummingbirds love. Train up a trellis or similar stricture when young.
Check with your local extension office to see if this is invasive in your area.
6-10, or enjoy as an annual
10 to 15 feet tall and 6 to 10 feet wide
What about using hummingbird feeders?
Many homeowners use feeders filled with sugar solution to encourage hummingbirds to visit, but the sugary drink also attracts ants, bees, and wasps. And, in warm conditions the solution can quickly become cloudy with bacteria which is harmful or even fatal to the birds. Rather than using feeders, consider adding some of the plants listed above to your landscape or containers.
Learn more about feeding hummingbirds from the Audubon Society.
A Salvo of Salvia
By Teresa Everett, California Native Plant Garden Educator
If you have been on any of our CNPS native garden tours or have hiked through our local hills, mesas, or valleys, you have no doubt seen (and smelled) California’s magnificent blooming sages. If you have visited any nurseries, you have also noticed the wide variety of sages on the display tables—so many, in fact, that it can be overwhelming. How do you choose which sage is best for your garden? The following is a quick primer on the sages of California. California is home to 17 of the world’s 800-plus sage species. Because several of our California species will naturally hybridize, horticulturalists have used this reproductive malleability to create dozens of cultivars and hybrids for garden use. These horticultural varieties range from 7-foot-tall shrubs to ground-hugging forms only a few inches high. The silvers, grays, and greens of their foliage, plus the long-running show of flowers that come in a spectrum from white to pink to mauve to scarlet to purple to indigo to sky blue, make the California sages a must-have in your garden palette.
California sages are lovers of dry areas and thus thrive in low-water landscapes. They are found along our coasts, across our inland valleys, up into the Sierra Nevada foothills, and out into parts of our deserts. Most sages tolerate clay soils very well, the exceptions being the desert species. The vast majority of sages thrive in full sun, but there is a species, the hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea), that will light up the shadiest section of your garden with beautiful hot pink flower spikes. Sages do very wel lin some of a garden’s most difficult areas, such as dry, sunny slopes or rocky, clay soil.
All sage species are in the mint family (Lamiaceae). The scientific name of the sage genus, Salvia, is based on the Latinword meaning “to heal” or “to save.” Sages are treasured by cultures worldwide for their medicinal and culinary uses. The common culinary sage seen in grocery stores is the Mediterranean species, Salvia officinalis, but all of our California sages can be used in cooking as well. Each species has its own flavor profile, with some much stronger than others. Most people like to cook with either black sage (Salvia mellifera) or Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii). The mild hummingbird sage adds a delicate sweetness to food or drink recipes. White sage (Salvia apiana) has been quite important in indigenous Californians’ blessing and cleansing ceremonies. California’scnative peoples have also made tea from sage leaves to cure illness and have toasted and ground seeds to make gruel. The“rediscovery” of the health benefits of chia (Salvia columbariae) seed has led to a recent resurgence in the popularity of incorporating this seed into a well-balanced diet. Honey harvested from beehives situated near areas covered with white, black, or purple sage is particularly delicate and flavorful.
Sages are also a very important food source for California wildlife. Sages bloom from late winter until late spring and into the summer, depending on the species. The flowers contain high-quality nectar and therefore are absolute magnets for hummingbirds, butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. After the blossoms set seed, they are also a feast for seed-loving birds, such as goldfinches, quail, sparrows, juncos, and towhees. Just remember to not deadhead all of the dried flower stalks so the birds can eat their share of seed! While sages are very attractive to birds and insects, deer and rabbits fortunately find them unappealing the pungent odor of the leaves, which we and the birds and bees find so inviting, acts as a repellent to mammalian browsers.
In the garden, sages prefer full sun and good drainage, although hummingbird sage prefers partial to full shade. When first establishing your sages, you will need to water them every 7 to 14 days throughout their first year or so, to keep their root ball slightly moist but not wet or soggy. Once they are established (having doubled in size), you will need to ease back their watering to about once a month. If you are growing straight species, use the drier side of these suggestions and give them a break from watering in July, August, and September. The hybrids and cultivars have been developed for more refined garden tastes, and established plants can tolerate a watering every 2 to 4 weeks to keep them looking fresh. Also give the hybrids and cultivars a summer break, with sparser watering in the dormant months. Sages do not appreciate any fertilizers or soil amendments they like our native soils just the way they are and rely on their relationship with the fungal friends on their roots and in our soils to extract all of the nutrients they require.
When researching varieties to use in your garden, pay close attention to mature size, as you should not prune more than one-third of your plant back at a time. Dead-heading sages after they flower will keep them looking neat but generally does not encourage a re-bloom. They can also be tip-pruned to keep them dense and pruned around the perimeter to limit their spread. Pruning back the plant by one-third in the plant’s quiettime (late summer) before they start pushing new growth in the fall works quite nicely as long as you do not cut into the thicker, woodier stems. Sometimes you can prune back almost 50% of the plant if it has exuberant growth from the previous spring. If you have a many-year-old sage with a nice, established root system, but it looks like it could do with a complete makeover or be replaced with a younger, denser plant, you can try a makeover first by cutting it back to just 6 to 10 inches off the ground and letting it re-sprout. One of my favorite blogs—Weeding Wild Suburbia—has nice articles on pruning young sages and pruning older sages to learn more.
So, now that you’re ready to plant some sage, how do you select which ones to bring home from the nursery? Here is a quick rundown of some favorite sages that you will find in nurseries, along with links to plant descriptions.
But first some quick definitions:
Straight species: those found naturally growing in the wild.
Horticultural selections: naturally occurring variation of individual plants within a species that are brought into cultivation.
Hybrid: a natural or cultivated cross between two or more species.
STRAIGHT SPECIES AND THEIR HORTICULTURAL SELECTIONS
White Sage (Salvia apiana)
Beautiful silver-blue foliage, white flowers on tall flower stalks. Local to San Diego County