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Thursday, July 5, 2018

Plant of the Month (July) : Cleveland Sage – Salvia clevelandii

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): Mother Nature's Backyard garden

Most of our native Salvias are spring bloomers.  Excluding a few blossoms on the Purple sage (Salvia leucophylla), most are done for the year – at least in our water-wise gardens.  The exception is our Plant of the Month - the Cleveland sage, Salvia clevelandii.  This species adds a welcome touch of blue-purple among the summer pink buckwheats dominating our summer gardens.  Its scientific name is pronounced SAL-vee-uh  cleve-LAND-ee-eye.

Like all Salvias, Salvia clevelandii belongs to the Mint family, known for square stems and aromatic foliage. In fact, another common name for Salvia clevelandii is ‘Fragrant Sage’. Seventeen Salvia species are native to California. [1]  Many are common, while a few are quite rare.  We grow seven of the common S. California species (Salvia apiana; S. clevelandii; S. dorii; S. leucophylla; S. mellifera; S. munzii; S. spathacea) in Mother Nature’s Backyard and Garden of Health.   They are key species in our gardens, providing color, scent, habitat and a source of cuttings for seasonings and potpourri.

Cleveland sage is named for Daniel Cleveland, an early collector of the species. Cleveland (1838-1929), was an authority on ferns, a lawyer and botanical collector in the San Diego area.  He was one of the founding members of the San Diego Natural History Society and started the herbarium of the San Diego Natural History Museum.  A number of native plants are named in his honor. [2]   Cleveland sage was also collected in the 1800’s by the Parish brothers and Leroy Abrams.  For more stories on early S. California plant collectors see: http://mother-natures-backyard.blogspot.com/2018/05/californias-fascinating-native-plants.html.

Cleveland sage grows in the chaparral and coastal sage scrub, primarily in Riverside and San Diego counties, south into Baja California, Mexico.   It grows on dry slopes and common plant associates include the Canyon silktassel (Garrya veatchii), Coyote bush (Baccharis pilularis), Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum), Laurel sumac (Malosma laurina), California encelia and Chaparral mallow (Malacothamnus fasciculatus).

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): plant growth form

Salvia clevelandii is a part-woody sub-shrub, growing 2-5+ ft. (0.5-1.5 m.) tall and about as wide.  Its form may be rounded or sprawling; we suspect the form is influenced by the amount of pruning, as well as light. Cleveland sage is the most evergreen of our local Salvias; while most have switched to their small, dry summer leaves, Cleveland sage remains pleasantly evergreen through most of the summer. 

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): foliage

The leaves are small (to about 1.25 inches; 3 cm.), pronouncedly veined and wrinkled. The aroma of the leaves is heavenly; the sweetly fresh scent is prized by many gardeners.  The new stems are often tinged with red or purple.   The entire plant is more delicate appearing than most of our other local Salvias.  The refined appearance is another reason this species is widely used in gardens.

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): flowers

Cleveland sage blooms for about a month, in late spring/early summer.  In our gardens it can start as early as April, but more commonly blooms from June into July.  The flowers of this species are a more vivid blue-purple than any of the other Salvias we grow.  They’re an ‘electric blue’ – photographs don’t do the flower color justice!   The tiny, mint-shaped flowers grow in ball-like clusters around the stems.   The individual flowers extend from the darker colored bracts, producing a particularly  attractive appearance.  A mature plant will be covered in floral clusters.

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): flowering plant

The flowers attract hummingbirds (they may fight over the flowers), butterflies and other pollinators.   Seed-eating birds like the Goldfinches pluck seeds from the stems in late summer and fall.  And the shrubby habit makes great shelter for ground-dwelling birds and lizards.   So Cleveland sage makes a good all-round habitat shrub.

Cleveland sage prefers a light to medium, well-drained soil with pH from 6.0 to 8.5.  It’s doing fine in clay-loams and clays in Gardena and Carson gardens.  It does best in either full sun or with some afternoon shade (hot, inland gardens – even Phoenix, AZ).   In all gardens, Cleveland sage is fine with a moderate layer of organic mulch.

In much of S. California, Salvia clevelandii looks best with occasional summer water – perhaps several waterings a summer.  It grows in areas prone to summer monsoons – look to the weather reports from the San Diego foothills for a clue for when to water.   In hot desert gardens, and in very sandy soils, deep weekly irrigation will keep it looking good. [3]

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): pruned plant

Like most native Salvias, Cleveland sage looks best with regular late fall pruning. Pruning should begin the first fall, even though the plant will be small.  Each branch should be pruned back, leaving 3-4 branching nodes.  Don’t cut back into the older, non-budding wood, which cannot re-sprout.  Fall pruning – similar to browsing of deer in the wilds – promotes a dense, rounded shape.   Deadheading the flowers, if desired, may promote a second round of blooming.

'Winnifred Gilman' sage (Salvia clevelandii 'Winnifred Gilman')

Cleveland sage is widely planted in Southwestern gardens, often alongside other Salvias.  So it’s not surprising that a number of attractive hybrids and other cultivars have resulted.   Some of these appear to be all (or mostly) true Salvia clevelandii types, though they may be found to have other salvia genes. The most common and popular in our area is S. clevelandii  ‘Winnifred Gilman’, a nicely shaped cultivar with loads of intensely blue flowers.  The other ‘true’ Cleveland sage cultivar is S. clevelandii  ‘Betsy Clebsch’ (recommended for desert gardeners).

Cleveland sage cultivar (Salvia clevelandii x S. leucophylla)

There are several good hybrid cultivars that share the good features of Salvia clevelandii.   The most common are the Salvia clevelandii x S. leucophylla hybrids, including ‘Allen Chickering’, ‘Ponzo Blue’ and ‘Whirly Blue’.  These cultivars have slightly lighter purple flowers, with more flower clusters per stalk (see above).  Like Purple sage,   they are very drought tolerant and may be longer lived than straight Cleveland Sage.

Salvia ‘Vicki Romo’ is an interesting hybrid between Salvia clevelandii and S. apiana (White sage).   This plant is smaller than White sage, has more gray-green leaves than Cleveland sage, and is also very drought tolerant. ‘Celestial Blue’ (Salvia clevelandii x pachyphylla x ?leucophylla) features the blue-and-magenta flowers of Salvia pachyphylla and gray-green foliage.  Other (likely complex) hybrids include ‘Aromas’ (looks like Purple sage but with strong aroma) and Salvia ‘Carl Nielson’ (possibly Salvia clevelandii × mohavensis), a smaller cultivar that does well with monthly water in desert gardens. [4]

Cleveland sage hybrid cultivar: Garden of Dreams
 Discovery Garden, CSU Dominguez Hills

Whether you choose the straight species or a cultivar, Cleveland sage is a delight for the garden designer.  Because the growth habit, foliage and flower color, bloom season, size and fragrance are quite different among the cultivars, we recommend seeing a plant in person before purchasing.
Whichever you choose, Cleveland sage adds a splash of blue-purple to the late spring and early summer garden.  It contrasts beautifully with the creamy pastels of the native buckwheat flowers or the yellows of the summer sunflowers.  It is also dramatic when massed.   In the San Diego area it can be used to naturalize large gardens.   It can be used as a foundation plant, at the back of water-wise flower beds or as an accent plant.   While short-lived in some gardens, Cleveland sage is worth replanting every 5 years or so, if necessary.

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): contrasts with
 Giant buckwheat (Eriogonum giganteum)

An aroma garden would not be complete without Cleveland Sage; it smells like no other sage and is delightful beside a seating area in summer.  The flowers – even the dried stems – make great cut flowers.  The leaves can also be dried for use as a flavoring, incense or potpourri.  The scent lasts for at least 6-8 months after drying.  Place a sachet of dried Cleveland sage in a clothing drawer for a reminder of summer.  Or use the dried leaves to create a refreshing bath or shower.

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): young plant,
 Mother Nature's Backyard, Gardena CA


In summary, Cleveland sage is beloved by gardeners for its graceful shape, bright flowers and wonderful aroma.  It is a native habitat plant, with many practical uses. So search out Salvia clevelandii (or its cultivars) next time you visit a native plant garden or nursery.  You may be convinced to find a place for it in your own garden.

Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii): Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, Claremont CA

For a gardening information sheet see: http://www.slideshare.net/cvadheim/salvia-clevelandii

For information on other native Salvias:

For plant information sheets on other native plants see: http://nativeplantscsudh.blogspot.com/p/gallery-of-native-plants_17.html


  1. http://www.calflora.org/cgi-bin/specieslist.cgi?where-genus=Salvia
  2. http://www.calflora.net/bloomingplants/clevelandsage.html
  3. http://www.public.asu.edu/~camartin/plants/Plant%20html%20files/salviaclevelandii.html
  4. https://www.desertmuseum.org/visit/sheets/Salcarnie.pdf




We welcome your comments (below).  You can also send your questions to: mothernaturesbackyard10@gmail.com


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