2017-04-20 / Columns

Wise old plants make comeback

Gloria Glasser


RESURGENCE—With the winter rains, sage plants that were starting to perish in the drought are making a comeback this spring. The plants have a distinctive aroma that has been dubbed “cowboy perfume” because it clings to clothing that has brushed against the plant in the chaparral. RESURGENCE—With the winter rains, sage plants that were starting to perish in the drought are making a comeback this spring. The plants have a distinctive aroma that has been dubbed “cowboy perfume” because it clings to clothing that has brushed against the plant in the chaparral. What does “back from the brink” look like in the world of chaparral shrubs?

Just a short time ago, it meant seeing random tufts of freshly sprouted black sage leaves appear on otherwise massive mounds of brittle ashy-gray, utterly expired looking branches. Or it might’ve been seeing sunlight glinting with a silvery sheen on an artemisia’s soft, thin, unfurling foliage.

Anyone who loves the wild sages that clothe so much of the Santa Monica Mountains in tiers of rumpled greenery can’t help but get a bit emotional this year.

“Back from the brink” is putting it mildly. The deprivation these plants endured during our severe drought would typically finish off even the hardiest green souls in the plant kingdom. It was not uncommon to see withered hillsides shouldering masses of chaparral sages that were fading and seemingly about to succumb for good—until copious amounts of rainfall began arriving in January.

The annihilation game was forestalled. Earlier this year, it was not initially a pretty sight. Our native sages tend to grow in a gangly sprawl. With intermittent bursts of new life appearing on nearly lifeless limbs, the shrubs tended to resemble a standard poodle in the hands of a crazed groomer. It wasn’t a full, elegant, balanced or tidy green resurgence—but did very nicely for starters.

Now, with the combination of February’s whopper rainfall followed by a sudden detour to high heat, there’s no looking back for these pungent armies that produce so-called “cowboy perfume” if an equestrian, hiker or cyclist brushes by their strongly scented foliage.

Here are some of the chaparral sages to look for as they re-foliate and begin to produce flowers.

Black sage, Salvia mellifera, has whorls of small pale purplish blue flowers. Its leathery leaves are small, narrow and aromatic.

Chia, Salvia columbariae, sends up from lacy basal foliage its slender stalks that bear whorls of small cobalt blue flowers.

Crimson pitcher sage, Salvia spathacea, is a very showy plant often found growing in colonies on north-facing slopes and under oaks. Its stalks bear stout whorls of burgundy blossoms.

Purple sage, Salvia leucophylla, has dimpled gray-green foliage that supports profuse spires thickly clad in pale pinkish-purple flowers with long whimsical stamens.

White sage, Salvia apiana, has smooth silvery leaves with wavy margins. Its long bloom stalks produce white flowers that somewhat resemble exotic orchids.

Pitcher sage, Lepechinia fragrans, is a large beautiful shrub with downy foliage and dangling white bell-shaped flowers.

Yerba Santa, Eriodictylon crassifolium, has a rugged look for a shrub that produces clustered trumpets of lavender-white flowers that would’ve made Monet swoon. The foliage is coarse with saw-toothed margins, and regrowth occurs at the tips of long, bare, gawky canes.

California sagebrush, Artemisia californica, has inconsequential flowers and is best known for its aromatic, feathery pale green foliage that grows every which way.

Reach Glasser at ranchomulholla@gmail.com.

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