Plant taxonomy classifies the Russian sage that I grow as Perovskia atriplicifolia. For a more rigidly upright type, grow the species, Perovskia longin. These plants are in the mint family. ‘Blue Spire’ is a popular cultivar.
Technically, Russian sage is classified as a woody sub-shrub. But because many people prune these bushes annually and thereby keep them relatively short, they are often treated as if they were perennial flowers.
A graceful perennial with silver stems (so chalky in appearance they sometimes seem to be white) and feathery, silvery leaves, Russian sage plants (at maturity and/or if you do not prune them annually) can reach a height of 4 feet (with a spread of 3 feet) or greater. For a more compact version, try ‘Little Spire’ (1 1/2-2 feet tall, with a similar spread).
This bush produces panicles of small, bluish-lavender flowers from June through September, allowing us to group it loosely with the long-blooming perennials. The plant has fragrant foliage.
Russian sage plants attract hummingbirds and honey bees. They are also plants that attract butterflies. Like many aromatic plants, they are, fortunately, deer-resistant plants and rabbits are unlikely to eat them.
Planting Zones, Growing Conditions for Russian Sage Plants
Indigenous to central Asia, Perovskia atriplicifolia can be grown in planting zones 5-9.
Plant Perovskia atriplicifolia in full sun. These bushes grow best in well-drained ground but will not balk too loudly about a clayey soil.
Uses for Russian Sage
Its fine texture makes Russian sage a good choice if you’re seeking contrast with plants exhibiting a coarser texture. For examples of such contrasts in landscape design, see my pictures of how plant texture is used to good effect.
More generally, Perovskia atriplicifolia is used en masse in border plantings and — because of its drought-tolerance — in rock gardens.
If not overpowered by plants with larger, showier flowers, it can serve as a specimen plant.
These are tough plants and need little care. Being tall, they do often require support (either staking or a peony ring) if grown individually, lest they flop over. If grown in masses, they more or less support each other. But the big care concern with these plants is pruning, so let me break down the subject into the why, when, and how of pruning:
- The “Why” Behind Pruning Russian Sage: Some gardeners choose to prune Russian sage annually. The argument for pruning is that the plant will grow to be bushier as a result of this care. At the very least, cut off any dead branches to keep this perennial tidy.
- When to prune Russian sage: The time to prune Russian sage will be early spring or mid-spring, depending on the strategy you adopt. See immediately below.
- How to prune Russian sage: There are two basic trimming strategies. One is to prune down to within a few inches of ground level in early spring and just be done with it. But another approach is to wait until mid-spring and allow the plant stems to start to fill in with leaves. You’ll be able to identify the dead stems this way as the ones that aren’t filling in, and you can proceed to cut them off. Then make a judgment regarding the remaining branches. Do you want to start out with stems that are 1 foot tall? Then make your cut accordingly. The taller a plant you start out with in spring, the taller a plant you’ll end up with in fall.
One reason why spring is the best time to prune (as opposed to trimming in fall) is that leaving the silver branches adds interest to the winter landscape.
Outstanding Features of Russian Sage
Perovskia atriplicifolia is a drought-tolerant shrub, rendering it low-maintenance and a sound candidate for xeriscaping. Its long blooming period will be valued by those who seek a flower bed that remains in bloom throughout the growing season. Not to be outdone by its flowers, the plant’s stems and foliage make a strong statement of their own, perhaps even outstripping the floral display as the chief reason to grow the bush.
Landscaping With Perovskia atriplicifolia
Russian sage plants, given their long-blooming nature and how tall they are, can be an excellent choice for the back row of a flower bed.
Plants that look great juxtaposed to Perovskia atriplicifolia and are commonly used as companion plants for it include:
- English lavender
- Ornamental grasses
- Purple coneflower
- Black-eyed Susans
- Moonbeam coreopsis