Pruning sage

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Pruning wild, shrubby sages is a bit of an art. They often grow very rapidly, developing woody stems that do not resprout reliably. It is recommended in Care and Maintenance of Southern California Native Gardens (available at RSABG and CNPS ) that you cut back these sages in the winter by about a third to a half when they are young. Once they have matured they should be pruned more lightly, taking care to avoid cutting back into the woody stems. Sounds simple but I must admit that this answer does not convey the difficulty I experience pruning my own sages.

I have three shrubby sages in my sidewalk garden that I’d like to discuss. The oldest is a rather odd hybrid that I got in 2004 at Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. It is a cross between Salvia brandegei and S. munzii. Its leaves are narrow and it has a sort of upright but mounding habit; that is, it has upright woody stems but the new growth is on flexible stems that flow. This sage blooms during the winter and hosts hundreds of bees and butterflies. Furthermore, it makes the best tasting tea of any sage I’ve tried. However, the plant looks kind of – shall I say unkempt.

Salvia (brandegei x munzii) (on left) growing next to Salvia munzii ‘Baja Blue’ (on right). I planted these next to each other so that I could learn to distinguish them. Well the one of the right (S. b x m) has floppier new growth, it blooms much earlier in the year than Baja Blue, and it tastes much better. I have since removed Baja Blue because I didn’t like it as much. Notice that none of my decisions regarding these plants has anything to do with design or aesthetics. This tells you more about me than about the plants. (November 2005).

As with all of my sages, it grew very rapidly early on. I tried to keep up and prune hard in the fall (this one needed early pruning since it starts growing and blooming in December). As the years passed it developed the typical woody stems, but it also continued to grow rapidly each year. Maybe I was too timid and should have cut it back harder, but in the end it has a pretty bad structure. During the winter when it is in bloom it can look beautiful but by summer it looks disheveled. As mentioned above, I keep it for its early bloom, its appeal to bees and butterflies, and it wonderful flavor, but not for it overall beauty throughout the year.

Pruned it hard! (May 2008 )
But it’s back! (January 2009)
Pruned hard again in February 2010.


The second sage that I have been working on is a cross between white sage (Salvia apiana) and black sage (Salvia mellifera) called S. ‘Starlight’. It too was cultivated at Rancho. Although this plant is much more upright, it is not a looker either. It has also been in the garden for more than six years and seems quite healthy. I doesn’t have showy flowers or a great taste. Maybe it should go!

Planted in November 2004, S. ‘Starlight’ has been cut back hard over the years. This picture was taken in November 2005, a year after it was planted.
Here it is after a hard pruning in February 2010.
I took this picture today, 1/3/2011. Notice the long stems, leafy only at the ends. There are leaf buds along the stems in places.


And finally, I had great hopes for the black sage (Salvia mellifera) that I planted on the north end of the sidewalk garden next to the driveway. I am interested in using locally native plants and had hoped this would be a good choice. I planted it three years ago. Like the others I pruned it hard when it was young. It grows rapidly during the winter and I am being more aggressive, pinching the buds during winter.

Black sage (Salvia mellifera),planted in January 2008, was pruned the following winter. (December 2008)
February 2010, after being pruned.
January 2011, the black sage is developing the characteristic woody stems.


Pinching tips of black sage (1/3/2011). It smells so good. As noted by Gabi McLean in her garden blog, black sage is very sappy and it turns your fingers black when you work on it – maybe the reason for its name.


Pinched tip.


A large black sage that grows by the entry of the South Pasadena Nature Park has looked good for many years. For several years a volunteer at the park adopted this plant, pruning more frequently than I would have. During those years the plant looked its best.

Volunteers in front of the black sage (Salvia mellifera) at the entrance to the South Pasadena Nature Park (3/25/2006)


March 26, 2009


I think that the moral of the story is that sages can look great, especially when they are actively growing and blooming. Many do not look great during the summer and fall when they are dormant. Still, they smell wonderful and are loved by birds, butterflies, bees, and all sorts of other delightful critters.

As for my sages, upon reflection I think these are the reasons that I am not especially pleased with how they look.

  1. They are just standing alone with no rhyme or reason to where I placed them.
  2. Some get too much water since they are near non-native flowering trees that must be watered in the summer. This – and my rich, loamy soil – surely are responsible for their rampant growth.
  3. The black sage does not get full sun and will therefore probably be extra leggy.
  4. They need more pruning and pinching to keep them under control.

But who can say no to this:

or this:

Let me know about your experiences with California wild sages.

6 thoughts on “Pruning sage

  1. Mine grow in fairly crappy soil and tend to look good. But most of them are still pretty young. I do have a gorgeous black sage in my back hill that is huge and a bit woody, but still looks good. I think a lot depends on what is around them.

  2. Salvia mellifera was the first sage I planted here…and promptly forgot about as we were distracted with other parts of the garden. I stopped to look at it the other day, and I swear it's grown tremendously this last year. I think this will be its 3rd year in the ground. I think some pruning will be in order, but I've probably left it a little late for its first hair cut! It doesn&#

  3. I wacked back my S. clevlandii (the species, I think) and S. leucophylla Pt. Sal spreader this fall. Clevlandii looks like it will turn out OK, but I&#39;m worried about the other guy. Good think is that they grow so fast, it&#39;s not such a big deal to take one out and replace it.<br />I also have S. brandegii &#39;Pacific Blue&#39; which seems to be unable to decide whether to grow tall or

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  5. Donna – I think fairly crappy soil is just what most Salvias want. Bad soil? – lucky you!<br /><br />@CVF- I bet it won&#39;t do well transplanting but I&#39;d give it a try … and take some cuttings. Easy to do and they grow fast.<br /><br />@TM – I have other sages also and the one that I love for the way it grows is Mrs. Beard. Low spreader that really takes hard pruning. I don&#39;t think I

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