Native to the Great Basin and Mojave Deserts of the American Southwest, desert sage (Salvia dorrii) is a small shrub with showy blue flowers and purple bracts. It grows in U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 5 through 9. This low-growing shrub is also called desert purple sage, purple sage, grayball sage, Dorr sage and tobacco sage. If you're a fan of Zane Grey's Western novels, it's thought that desert sage is the plant referred to in his book, "Riders of the Purple Sage."
Desert sage makes a tidy, mounded shrub that is 8 to 32 inches tall and 24 to 36 inches wide. It is densely branched and doesn't need pruning to maintain its shape. The woody stems and branches have rough, grayish bark that peels from the surface. Desert sage needs full sun, but in hottest desert areas benefits from afternoon shade. A well-draining soil is essential.
Plant desert sage where you can brush by the foliage to release the powerful aromatic fragrance in the leaves. The oval leaves are green but look silvery-gray because of a coating of fine hairs. The leaf color makes a good foil for the bright spring flowers. The shrub is semi-evergreen, retaining its leaves in mild winter climates but shedding some leaves in colder weather. Desert sage is resistant to browsing by rabbits and deer.
Flowers and Pollinators
The blue- to violet-blue tubular flowers form in whorls along the stems. Rosy-purple bracts complement the flower color well and keep their shape and color after the flowers have faded. The flower clusters provide abundant nectar for bees, butterflies, hummingbirds and moths. The ovary at the base of each flower produces a fruit containing four seeds. You can remove the flower heads when the bracts begin to fade for a more tidy appearance. To grow more plants from seed, provide them with up to six weeks of cold-moist stratification for better germination. Put the seeds in moist paper towels and seal them in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
Using Desert Sage
Useful in low-water landscapes, desert sage is drought-tolerant and needs little maintenance once established. The shrubs make borders or edgings, and they're good additions to butterfly and hummingbird gardens. There's some evidence that they don't tolerate sprinkler irrigation well. Desert sage is suitable for containers, which give the plant the excellent drainage it needs. Always use a container with drainage holes. Another option is to combine it with drought-tolerant perennials that have similar cultural requirements.
Carolyn Csanyi began writing in 1973, specializing in topics related to plants, insects and southwestern ecology. Her work has appeared in the "American Midland Naturalist" and Greenwood Press. Csanyi holds a Doctor of Philosophy in biology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.