Growing in zone 5b, it can be difficult to find plants that serve my garden well, survive our harsh winters, and are low-maintenance and beautiful. I was thrilled when I learned of Russian sage, and I love how easy it is to grow and care for.
This plant gives lots of lavender and catmint vibes, is pollinator-friendly, and offers whimsical charm to my garden, all while being relatively pest-free and performing well in our rocky New Hampshire soil. Plus, it doesn’t hold a grudge if I forget to water it. It prefers it!
Join me as I share why I love Russian sage and how to plant, grow, and care for this lovely perennial shrub.
What Is It?
This herbaceous shrub with a woody base and herbaceous stems excels in both hot, dry, sunny climates and colder climates.
This beautiful herbaceous shrub has an interesting background and performs well in hot, dry, sunny climates. It does surprisingly well when grown in colder climates, too.
Technically a sub-shrub, it has a woody base with flowering herbaceous stems. It was named the Perennial Plant of the Year in 1995 by the Perennial Plant Association.
This striking perennial has leaves that, when crushed, emit a scent reminiscent of sage.
This stunning perennial, oddly, is not a true sage nor from Russia! The aroma given off when leaves are crushed and used medicinally steeped into tea is slightly reminiscent of sage. It was recently reclassified as a member of the Salvia family and is now known as Salvia yangii.
Sage and Salvia
Historically, sage was mainly used for medicinal purposes.
The words sage and salvia strangely have the same Latin origin, ‘salvere’ meaning to save. The Romans called common sage salvia, or “the plant that saves,” which is where the genus name eventually came from in the botanical world.
In Roman times, sage was mostly used medicinally, whereas today, it’s widely used in the culinary world for its earthy tones and fresh aromas.
Its flowers can be used in essential oils.
There are several traditional medicinal uses for this plant’s flowers, but not its leaves. Essential oils can also be expelled and used in similar ways. Be cautious, as the leaves are toxic and should not be consumed.
The flowers and leaves can be dried and used in potpourri. The flowers add a nice peppery flavor to salads and create a bit of formality to a cocktail.
You can find Russian sage capsules, powders, and teas at most health food stores. Consult a doctor before incorporating it into your diet to ensure it’s safe for you, and only use it as instructed.
This ornamental perennial has silvery-green foliage, bluish-purple flowers, and sturdy stems.
Resembling lavender and smelling like sage, but botanically not related to either, Russian sage is an ornamental flowering perennial. This lovely shrub grows about 3-5 feet tall and 2-4 feet wide, with silvery-green foliage and bluish-purple flowers. The stems are sturdy and stiff unless they don’t get ample sunlight. Then, they may flop over and need support.
Its small purple flowers are tubular, two-lipped, and whorled, the perfect landing strip for bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. The sepals are covered in tiny white and purple hairs, giving it a fluffy appearance. Each panicle has many branches, and it grows erect, creating an open mound effect when in full bloom.
If you’ve ever grown traditional perennial salvia, you’ll notice the resemblance is uncanny. It pairs well with many different plants and flowers.
This species thrives on hillsides and grasslands, adapting successfully to the hot and dry conditions with cold winters.
Native to Central Asia and Tibet, it can be found on hillsides and grasslands, growing happily on slopes and in rocky terrain. It has adapted well to the United States, being from a place that’s hot and dry with cold winters.
How to Grow
This relatively low-maintenance perennial is easy to grow and adds lots of charm to any garden.
Plant in full sun to prevent leggy stems and potential flopping.
Plant in an area that receives full sun. Partial shade will cause stems to be leggy, and they may flop over, requiring support or a move to a more sunny location. It is intolerant of full shade.
It requires minimal watering, and overwatering could hinder its performance or lead to death.
During the first year of growth, follow a watering schedule, but allow your plant to dry out in between sessions. Once it’s well-established, it does not require much watering. Remember, it will not perform well and could die if overwatered.
Ensure well-draining, sandy, or loamy soil with a pH between 5.8 and 6.5.
Well-draining soil is necessary; the soil pH level should be between 5.8 and 6.5. It will suffer drastically, underperform, or die in soggy, wet soil.
Plan a thoughtful place for this drought-resistant shrub in your garden before transplanting, and make adjustments as needed. Add compost each season to help with drainage. Sandy, loamy soil is preferred.
It also performs well in a rock garden with other drought-resistant cultivars. It tolerates poor-quality soil that’s slightly alkaline (above 7.3) and does just fine in rocky areas and sloped areas.
Temperature and Humidity
Thriving in zones 4-9, this shrub is hardy in a broad temperature range from 40-95°.
Growing well in zones 4-9, Russian sage tolerates temperatures of a wide range, from 40-95°. It prefers dry over humid and hot to cold. However, it’s hardy down to zone 4, and some cultivars perform well in zones 2-3!
Before new growth in the spring, lightly fertilize with fish emulsion or quality aged compost.
Fertilizing should be done in the spring before new growth takes off, but not much is required. A light application of fish emulsion or side or top dressing with good-quality aged compost should suffice.
Occasionally pinch back for bushier growth, and prune last year’s wood annually in spring.
Russian sage will benefit from a light pinching back above a growing node now and again. This will encourage bushing out and a fuller shrub. It flowers on new wood each spring, so last year’s wood should be pruned off annually.
Don’t stress too much if you cut off too much or aren’t sure where to prune. This plant is very resilient, and after a few seasons, you’ll learn what it needs by its appearance and performance each spring.
If you grow in zone 5+, you can leave your plant to overwinter and cut it back in the spring. It looks lovely over the winter, adding a haunting look to your garden with its grayish foliage.
In colder zones, cut it back to about 12 inches in the fall. If you’re growing in colder zones than 4, try cutting your plant all the way back in the fall after the first frost. Cover it with straw mulch to protect it from winter temperatures, and you may be happily surprised come spring!
Consider adding mulch after winter pruning in northern zones to protect the plant from harsh temperatures.
While mulching is unnecessary throughout the growing season, if you grow in northern growing zones, you may want to add mulch after cutting your plant back before winter to protect it against harsh temperatures.
You can propagate by seed or by taking softwood or hardwood cuttings. Due to its woody stems and need for support, division is not recommended.
Growing from Seed
Transplant carefully in late spring after proper hardening off to minimize stress.
Seeds can be sown at any time of year and just barely covered with seed-starting mix. They germinate best at temperatures between 60-65° and can take up to four months to sprout. Cold stratification of 35-44° for at least ten days may increase the rate and speed of germination and may result in a more compact plant.
Step the seedlings up into a larger container as needed, disturbing the roots as little as possible. Transplant them in late spring after proper hardening off to avoid transplant shock and reduce stress.
Take softwood cuttings in peak summer, dip in root-stimulating hormone, plant in well-draining soil, and keep moist.
Softwood cuttings are taken in peak summer when growth is still fairly new and pliable, hence the name.
How to take softwood cuttings:
- Locate several healthy-looking stems.
- Using sharp, clean shears or pruners, cut 4-6 inches from the tips of the stem.
- Allow several leaves to remain up top, but remove the lower ones.
- Optionally, dip the cut end in root-stimulating hormone powder or gel to help with new root development, although it’s generally unnecessary.
- Add each cutting to a clean pot filled with well-draining potting soil, leaving just ⅓ of the cutting out of the soil.
- Tamp down the soil around the stem and water well.
- As with any new transplant, keep it moist but not soggy. Don’t let the soil dry out.
- New roots and growth should appear within a few weeks or months. Disturb it as little as possible during this stage and keep the environment humid. High humidity levels are preferred over misting or watering.
As your cuttings outgrow their container, step them up with fresh soil and a larger container, or simply transplant them outside in the spring when the risk of frost has passed.
Take hardwood cuttings in fall or winter during dormancy.
Hardwood cuttings are taken in the fall or winter when your sage plant is dormant. The cuttings are considered hardwood because they become woody after the growing season. The process is very similar to taking softwood cuttings, except they overwinter in a protected area while they form new roots. Keep them watered but not soggy. A cold frame or an unheated greenhouse is a fine area to keep them through the winter.
When the ground has thawed and temperatures are safe for transplant, you can find a permanent place for your new plant in your garden. Just be sure the root system is strong and healthy.
Both softwood and hardwood rooted cuttings would make a meaningful and useful gift for a friend or fellow gardener.
Gently remove tiny shoots near the plant base, dip them in root-stimulating hormone, and plant them in a pot.
While division is not recommended, tiny shoots sometimes pop up near the base of the plant. You can gently remove these and encourage new root growth by dipping them in root-stimulating hormone powder or gel and potting them up.
Transplant seedlings into your garden in spring when the risk of frost has passed, and the soil can be worked.
Dig a hole twice as wide as the root ball, place the plant, tamp soil around the crown without burying it, and water.
Prepare a hole for your plant that’s only as deep as the root ball but twice as wide. Place it in the hole and surround it with soil, tamping it down around the crown, but don’t bury the crown itself. Then, water it in to settle the dirt around the plant.
Plant in full sun for optimal performance, as it may need staking or become leggy in shadier areas.
This species will perform best and be sturdiest in full sun. It may require staking or become leggy when grown in shadier areas.
Add this ornamental shrub to a perennial patch, along border gardens, paired with tall grasses in a cottage garden, or enjoy its beauty alongside a patio or sitting area. Pollinators will flock to it; whether in bloom or not, it adds much visual interest to any outdoor space.
As a mint family member, this plant spreads gradually, is easily manageable, and is not invasive.
Being in the mint family, it does spread quite easily, but it happens slowly. It’s easily plucked out in unwanted areas and is not considered invasive.
In the spring, remove any new sprouts that have come up and cultivate around your plants. Add compost at this point to help suppress any newly germinating weeds or additional sprouts.
Most varieties will be considered mature after four years.
The best way to keep varieties true to type is to take cuttings directly from a known plant. Here are some popular varieties that may be hybrids of two different varieties.
This stunning German-origin cultivar boasts long-lasting dark blue flowers.
One of the prettiest cultivars out there that originated in Germany, the dark blue flowers of ‘Blue Spires’ have a long bloom period, and it performs well in zones 4-9. It can get up to four feet tall, so be sure to plant it somewhere with plenty of space to grow up, as well as lots of sunshine.
‘Denim n’ Lace’
‘Denim n’ Lace’ is a compact cultivar known for its finely textured silver-blue foliage and spiky, lavender-blue flowers.
The Chicago Botanical Gardens gave this cultivar five stars for its highly sought-after lacy appearance and large flower heads.
The ‘Blue Star’ cultivar is appreciated for its abundant spikes of deep blue flowers.
‘Blue Steel’ features simple, oval, deep blue flowers for a more understated, less flashy look. This plant will be just about three feet tall at full maturity.
Pests and disease are always possible, but for the most part, this is a healthy plant.
Prevent aphids by introducing natural predators like ladybugs and lacewings.
There are no real serious pests, but as always, you may spot a few unwelcome guests. Critters like rabbits and deer tend to leave it alone.
- Aphids: Is there anything aphids won’t go after? Don’t let them leave their sticky honeydew behind. Introducing and keeping around natural predators of aphids is the best way to control these vicious feeders. Ladybugs and lacewings are attracted to plants like dill, oregano, and sweet alyssum, so planting some nearby may help.
- Leaf hoppers: Leafhoppers feed on the sap of plants, leaving them stunted and can cause yellowing. Birds feed on leafhoppers, but if they’re not doing the trick, try spraying your plants with insecticidal soap. After being ingested, the soap causes dehydration and death of pests after causing their protective layering to dissolve. Cover the leaves thoroughly and apply in the morning or evening when the sun is not hot.
- Spider mites: These sap suckers will cause your plant to turn yellow or brown. Since they can take over quickly and cause lots of damage, be on the lookout for them in late spring to early summer. Keeping your garden and beneath plants clear of debris will help keep the pressure down.
- Whiteflies: Whiteflies can transmit disease and also suck nutrients from plants. They commonly infest greenhouses where there are lots of plants to attack together. They can be controlled similarly to aphids with strong water streams and, as a last resort, insecticidal soap.
Cylindrosporium leaf spot is challenging to manage and has symptoms of small to large brown spots.
The healthier the plant, the more resistant it will be to disease. This shrub is not typically affected by disease, but below are a few possibilities.
- Root or stem rot is the biggest threat and occurs when the soil is water-logged. This could be from poor soil quality, overwatering, or heavy rainfall.
- Cylindrosporium leaf spot comes from a soil-borne fungus. Fungicides are not always effective, so this disease is hard to manage once it’s present. Symptoms are small to eventually large brown spots, sometimes surrounded by a yellow halo.
- Phoma stem canker symptoms include black lesions along the petioles of leaves that travel to the stem. This fungal disease is more prevalent during extremely wet periods, and no fungicides are known to treat it. Prevent it by keeping pest pressure low and ensuring well-draining soil.
- Sclerotinia stem blight will cause wilting and gray lesions on stems and leaves. Check near the base of the plant for white mycelium present on the stem. Timely fungicide treatments should help control it. Plant survival rate depends on the severity of the case.
Floppiness or Thin, Weak Stems
Stems become leggy due to insufficient sunlight or overly rich soil.
This is usually caused by a lack of sunlight or the soil being too rich. Stems can become leggy when they’re reaching toward the available sun. They may also flop in younger days when their root system is still getting established.
Move your plant to a sunnier area if possible, and support larger varieties as needed by planting other shrubs or strong plants nearby.
- It isn’t from Russia, and it’s not sage. Although parts of it are edible, it’s beloved globally by landscapers due to its beauty and ease of care.
- It has very low pest and disease pressure.
- It’s fairly hardy in most growing zones and can be protected over the winters in extremely cold zones.
- It pairs well with many different plants and adds effortless charm to gardens.
Frequently Asked Questions
The height, airiness, and color of this plant pair well with peonies, ornamental grasses, lilies, shrub roses, and phlox.
Pruning freshens your plant, allowing it to focus on going dormant in the winter, staying healthy, and encourages new growth in the spring. If left alone without pruning, your shrub will become overgrown, woody, and less productive. If you acquire an overgrown shrub, simply cut it all the way back in the fall and it should produce new stems in the spring.
After four to six years, plant health may decline. You can split and prune to revitalize your plant. They are resilient and long-living plants when well cared for.
Have you added Russian sage to your “must grow next season” list? It’s low maintenance with little to no pest and disease pressure, thrives in drought conditions, and is beautiful, too!
The patience required to propagate and grow this gorgeous perennial is worth it when you sit back and enjoy its luscious blooms.