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Southern Europe is well known as the lavender center of the world. From the western edges of Portugal and Morocco, east through Spain, the lavender fields of Tuscany and on to Greece, Turkey and beyond, every resident is familiar with the lavender plant. There, under the dry, clear Mediterranean skies, various lavender species grow wild upon the hills, surviving and thriving without the aid of gardeners, irrigation or fertilizer.
 
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Throughout southern Europe, residents have thoroughly and completely adopted the lavender plant as their plant. But lavender isn’t just a plant of the wild European hills; it is also plant of almost every garden. Gardens are places where plants from almost any origin can be deposited. Yet in Europe the same lavender plant that grows on the hillsides, also grows in almost every garden. I find this intriguing.

Lavender plants are medium sized, rounded or slightly sprawling plants and, of course, are drought adapted. Their distinctive grey-green leaves are strongly aromatic with a high oil content. The fragrance is resinous, and is released either when the foliage is brushed or a warm, sunny days – days common to the region. Wild lavender is also an important source of nectar for bees and other pollinators.

Salvia clevelandii

Here in California our climate is nearly a mirror of southern Europe, especially the area around the Mediterranean Sea. But there are no lavender plants growing wild anywhere upon California’s hillsides or in our canyons.

In California we have our own version of lavender plants. We call them sages, or salvias.

Wild sage is to California, what lavender is to southern Europe. Same size plants; same foliage color; same flower color; same bloom period; same tall flower spikes held well above the foliage; same resinous, aromatic leaves and same significance to pollinators. Without a doubt, a walk through the native landscape of southern California will reveal several native sages to nearly any observer.

From my experience, California’s sages and Europe’s lavenders fill the same niche. They are even genetically linked, both brethren of the same family: Lamiaceae.

If sages are to California what lavenders are to Europe why is it that Europe’s gardeners have so completely embraced lavenders, yet California’s native sages are almost completely absent from our local gardens?

Orange County’s local sages include some very garden worthy candidates: cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii ), purple sage (Salvia leucophylla ), black sage (Salvia mellifera) and white sage (Salvia apiana). There is a good chance that if your house and garden wasn’t where it is, there would be at least one of these native sages growing in its place.

California’s sages are incredibly carefree plants. In fact, about the only thing a native sage doesn’t like is an overly attentive gardener. Since sages belong here, they can pretty much be left alone, needing little irrigation or fertilization; over watering or over fertilizing being the primary reasons for garden failure. Plant California’s sages now and provide them with a little extra water, just to get them going and then leave them alone, much like lavender planted in a garden in Tuscany. By spring you will have a nice size plant in full bloom – every bit as beautiful and fragrant as its European counterpart.  

Cleveland sage may be the most garden worthy of all our local sages. A shrub roughly 3–4 feet in size, with flowering spikes rising another foot during the spring and summer months, holding masses of blue-violet to lilac-blue blooms that are as well-loved by hummingbirds and native pollinators. There's nothing to compare to the aroma downwind from a patch of Cleveland sage. To me it is the fragrance of California.

Cleveland Sage accepts a range of garden environments, growing in hard clay that receives no summer water or on slopes that are watered somewhat regularly. In all cases, like lavenders, sages prefer full sun. Also like lavenders, pruning is best done in stages: a third in the fall, and a bit more in late winter. This keeps the size of the plant manageable and the plant bushy and attractive.

In California we have our own version of lavender plants. We call them sages, or salvias. I hope you’ll try one...or two...or three.  

Ron Vanderhoff is the Nursery Manager at Roger’s Gardens , Corona del Mar.

Questions from Readers November 14th, 2009

Question: The leaves of my new Mandevillea vine have suddenly yellowed and several have fallen off. Is this normal at this time of year?

Peggy, 
Newport Coast

Answer: Yes. Mandevillea are sub-tropical plants and dislike our cool winter months. Depending upon your specific location and the plants placement in the garden it may yellow just a bit or, in some cases, it may even lose the majority of its leaves during the winter months. Do not over-water it during this resting period and it will return to its glory again next spring.