Monday, October 4, 2010

Mexican Sage is A Hummer Magnet

Adult male Allen's Hummingbird on Salvia leucantha. Photo by tdlucas5000

I lied. I had to. I told work I’d be late because of a doctor’s appointment. I wanted be there early, but at 7:45 AM I was already part of the crowd. No, I’m not talking about Black Friday at Wal-Mart, but the St. Louis Community College-Meramec Horticulture Club Spring Plant Sale! Wandering through the packed tables that bright spring day in ’99, I spotted a scrawny, Charlie-Brown-Christmas-tree sort of a plant. It was labeled “Salvia leucantha, Mexican Sage”—no other information given.
      I’d been thinking about devoting a section of my garden to hummingbirds, especially after the visit of a western wanderer, a Selasphorus hummingbird the previous November. (My stray hummer was probably a Rufous Hummingbird, but it could have been an Allen's—they're both in the genus Selasphorus.) Any Salvia is worth trying, especially if it claims to come from Mexico. I bought two of the puny things; $3 each.
      Guessing that the plants would not be hardy, I put them in containers. During the long, hot summer that followed the plants grew—and grew. By July they were almost 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide, narrow-leaved and wild looking. The stems were covered with white, powdery down, but nary a bloom had bloomed. By late August I considered pitching them into the compost. Six bucks down the drain.
      Then in September—buds! Hummers fought over the still-closed, deep blue buds. By the time the Broad-winged Hawks were migrating, each denim-colored calyx had a white tube projecting from it. The hummers showed their delight by beating up on each other constantly.
      In early October another Selasphorus hummingbird arrived and chased away the Ruby-throats. Around Halloween I had to cover the plants to protect them from frost, but the temperatures recovered and they bloomed till almost December. She dined on Mexican and Pineapple Sage for the next 7 weeks, to the delight of many birders. She didn't even mind being captured, identified as an adult female Rufous who already had a band!
Mexican bush sage blooms when days get short. AMcC
      Such a fabulous plant—why had I never heard of it before? And why was Meramec the only place in town that carried it? Since then I’ve spied it here and there. Salvia leucantha showed up twice on PBS’s The Victory Garden. When that best-of-garden-TV shows visited Cape Town, South Africa, Adrian Bloom commented on a bed of them. The gardener replied, “Oh, yes. That’s one of the old Salvias.” (An old-fashioned flower? An old planting in his garden? I don’t know.) In another episode, the camera lingered over a terrace filled with them in Provence, France. A photo of Mexican sage graced the cover of Fine Gardening, in October, 2002. I spotted it in the Canon color printer commercial, with the pair of Anna’s Hummingbirds. The plant even appeared on the Clairol Herbal Essences Conditioner bottle—the one for “Normal to Oily Hair.”
      It’s easier to find Salvia leucantha in local garden centers now, but I usually find it in the herb section with the kitchen sage. I don’t know of any culinary use. I suspect they just don’t know where else to put it.
      The culture is not difficult. Mexican sage—also known as Mexican bush sage—can tolerate drought and poor soil. It’s great in containers, but grows larger in the ground. Presumably it’s adapted to sharp drainage in its Mexican home. It’s built for scorching sun, judging by the narrow leaves and reflective coating on the stems. I have had plants do very well in part-sun however.
      It doesn’t bloom till the days are short. Does the plant do so to minimize exposure to the sun? Is it related late summer rains in the Sonoran desert? Or is it trying to match its blooming period with the southward migration of its preferred pollinator, hummingbirds?
      My plants in loose garden soil did better than the ones in compacted clay, but they all survived—till the temperatures dipped below 29°. Poor little plants. Never saw it coming. While native plants formed seeds and went dormant, they bloomed and put on fresh, tender growth till the frost hammered them to the ground. Mexican sage’s hardiness is rated at Zone 7. We’re two zones north of that in Zone 5. The stems are brittle and can be easily snapped when planting. The pieces root just as easily however, and that’s the best way to save some for next season.
      Some gardeners have told me they wouldn’t devote space to a plant that won’t bloom till gardening season is over. Few plants can give this punch of color for so many weeks though, attracting feisty little birds, sometimes rare ones. I’ve grown it every year since ’99. Mexican bush sage sure beats the heck out of fall mums. Give it a try!
Thanks to my Flickr friend tdlucas5000 for the terrific photo of the Allen's Hummingbird guarding his patch of Mexican bush sage. 


  1. And here's a tip:
    Plant other salvias for earlier color and hummingbird food. S. guaranitica and S. microphylla are somewhat hardy South american and Mexican spcies (to 10F, lower with mulch and by a south wall). The annual S. coccinea is a good one, too, also eagerly visited by migrating cloudless sulfurs.

  2. Great suggestions James! The salvias you mention are fantastic plants for the hummingbird garden. I had forgotten about the Cloudless Sulfurs-another wonderful visitor.

  3. Yes, to me, the garden's purpose is attracting birds.
    "I value my garden more for being full of blackbirds than of cherries, and very frankly give them fruit for their songs." Joseph Addison

  4. I agree about the mexican sage, I am in southern CA. I planted some 8 years ago and as soon as they bloomed the hammers have been nonstop it is a daily occurrence to see them feeding, and perching in the twigs of my avocado tree. I have also seen nests on 3 separate occasions in the tree.

  5. I'd love to set up my scope under that tree. I'm crazy about Mexican sage (sometimes called Mexican bush sage), but mine didn't do well this year. I assume they were held back by the drought. Mine made it through the winter last year though inside my garage. Enjoy those hummers and avocados!