How to Grow and Care for Mexican Bush Sage

Drought tolerant plant returns annually attracting pollinators

Mexican bush sage

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) is an evergreen shrubby perennial prized for its dense, arching spikes. It blooms in late summer and early fall with showy cascades of velvety purple flowers good for attracting butterflies, hummingbirds, and other beneficial pollinators. Mexican bush sage makes a great companion plant along with other plants that pollinators favor, such as coneflowers and sedum.

Mexican bush sage flowers are approximately 10 inches long and extend above their soft green foliage with a slight silvery tint. Its gray-green leaves have a velvet-like texture and grow in pairs on square stems. The plant is soft and hairy to the touch. The most common variety produces bi-color blooms with white corollas and purple calyces, although several varieties like 'Midnight,' 'Pink Velour,' and 'White Mischief' respectively yield deep purple, pink, and white blooms.

Mexican bush sage is native to Central America and Mexico and easy to care for, requiring little maintenance. It doesn't self-seed, so it won't overgrow in an area where you don't want it.

Although it comes back yearly in the southern U.S. and along the Pacific coast, it is not winter hardy in areas that drop below freezing. It is grown as an annual in most of the U.S. It is best planted in the spring after the threat of frost passes. It typically grows two to three feet tall within one growing season. It can handle heavy pruning during the growing season but hold off on pruning in late fall or winter. Keeping its dead growth above the surface insulates the plant's roots.

Common Name Mexican bush sage, velvet sage
Botanical Name Salvia leucantha
Family Lamiaceae
Plant Type Perennial
Mature Size 2 to 3 ft. tall and wide
Sun Exposure Full sun
Soil Type Moist but well-drained
Soil pH Acidic, neutral, alkaline
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color White with purple, pink, white
Hardiness Zones 8-10 (USDA)
Native Area Mexico and tropical Americas
closeup of Mexican bush sage

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

closeup of Mexican bush sage detail

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

closeup of Mexican bush sage

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Mexican Bush Sage Care

Choose a sunny location and plant it in the early spring. Soil should be fertile and well-drained, and you can incorporate a one-inch layer of aged manure into the soil to promote its best growth. Be sure to space the plants three feet apart, and spread a few inches of mulch to help prevent weeds, retain moisture, and keep roots cool.

Mexican bush sages can be propagated with cuttings, and overwintering can be done indoors or outdoors, depending on the winter temperatures of your area. The plant can develop various infestations and fungal diseases, although you generally won't have problems with this low-maintenance bush.

Light

The Mexican bush sage prefers full sun but tolerates partial sun. If located in partial sun, your plant might not be as dense and lush as in full sun.

Water

Though Mexican bush sages are drought-tolerant, they require watering during hot summers. Be sure to water the shrub weekly during its initial growing season to help it develop strong roots. You can water Mexican bush sage during periods of drought longer than two weeks without significant rainfall.

Soil

Mexican bush sages require heavier soils than other plants and are not prone to rot in heavy soil. You can work a three- or four-inch layer of organic compost into the soil with a tiller, improving drainage and providing additional nutrients.

Temperature and Humidity

The Mexican bush sage is a warm-weather plant that blooms at the end of summer and early fall. It will only survive winters that don't go below 18 degrees Fahrenheit.

Fertilizer

You can fertilize the Mexican bush sage with an all-purpose, balanced fertilizer each year before new shoots emerge in the spring. Be sure to apply the fertilizer at the manufacturer's recommended rate. Fertilizing more than that is typically unnecessary.

Types of Mexican Bush Sage

  • Salvia leucantha 'Midnight' has dark purple calyces (bracts that surround the flower) and purple flowers on a plant that can reach five feet tall and wide. 
  • Salvia leucantha 'Pink Velour' (also known as 'Velour Pink' and 'Danielle's Dream') produces rosy pink tubular flowers with contrasting spikes of white calyxes. It grows three to four feet tall and wide.
  • Salvia leucantha 'White Mischief' produces fuzzy white blooms on a large plant that grows up to four feet wide and eight feet tall when planted in fertile soil.
purple Mexican sage

The Spruce / Adrienne Legault

Pink Mexican sage

Charles Schug / Getty Images

white Mexican sage bush

Karin de Mamiel / Getty Images

Best Companion Plants

Plant Mexican bush sage with other species with similar care requirements. Consider planting with Mexican sunflowers, marigolds, lantanas, chrysanthemums, and angel trumpets. Mexican bush sage is an excellent addition to a pollinator garden. It goes well with the plants popular with bees and butterflies, such as coneflower, black-eyed susan, and sedum.

Pruning

You can shear the Mexican bush sage two or three times during the spring and summer to promote denser, more compact growth and abundant blooms. Remove any dead, damaged, or scraggly stems. Deadhead flowers once they fade; it may encourage the plant to bloom again in the autumn months.

In warmer climates, shear the plant to the ground in the winter to ensure it grows back quickly into a full-sized and bushy plant. In colder zones, keep the dead growth intact until the spring. The dead growth insulates the plant during the wet, chilly months.

Propagating Mexican Bush Sage

The Mexican bush sage can be propagated with cuttings taken in spring or summer. While you can propagate from seed, propagating via cuttings is a productive use for excess branching. Here's how to propagate Mexican bush sage with stem cuttings:

  1. Use clean, sharp pruners to cut a piece of hardwood bearing four to five nodes.
  2. Strip all but the top set of leaves.
  3. Dip the end of the cutting into a rooting hormone.
  4. Plant the cuttings in a pot filled with moist potting mix and place the pot in a warm and sunny location.
  5. Water well, and after a few weeks, a root system and new foliage should develop.
  6. When the plant is several inches tall, harden it off before planting it outdoors in the late spring.

Winter Care

The Mexican bush sage can freeze and experience some stem dieback in winter, but when cut back in February, new growth will emerge in spring. You can overwinter the plant indoors in a pot with good drainage and exposure to ample sunlight. Move the plant indoors before the first frost of the year. However, you can leave the plant outdoors if the winter weather stays slightly above freezing temperatures.

Common Pests & Plant Diseases

Mexican bush sage is susceptible to several pests and diseases. Pest risks include whiteflies, aphids, and spider mites. However, these insects usually attack Mexican bush sages grown in a greenhouse. The plant can also develop diseases such as rust and leaf spot.

How to Get Mexican Bush Sage to Bloom

You can encourage a healthy bloom on your Mexican bush sage with appropriate care in the early stages of growth. When in bloom, the flowers are bright and fragrant, and the leaves are soft and hairy. Full bloom occurs in the summer. You should deadhead the faded flowers and maintain proper moisture during the bloom season to promote full and healthy flowers.

Common Problems With Mexican Bush Sage

The plant is generally low-maintenance and problem-free but is prone to issues common to all outdoor shrubs.

Plant Leaves Falling Off

Leaves infected with rust can cause leaf drop. Rust is a fungal disease that thrives in overly wet soil, so you should adjust your watering practices if you notice leaves falling off your Mexican bush sage.

Yellow Leaves

Like leaf loss, yellow leaves on your Mexican bush sage are often caused by overwatering or an overly nitrogen-rich fertilizer. You can address this issue preemptively by mixing at least 20% sand or grit with compost into your soil. Check the soil to ensure it's dry enough or well drained if you notice yellow leaves.

FAQ
  • What plants are similar to Mexican bush sages?

    The 'White Mischief' Mexican bush sage is similar to the purple Mexican bush sage, but it's better for flower cuttings and bears white flowers rather than purple.

  • Do Mexican bush sages attract animals?

    The Mexican bush sage attracts hummingbirds and butterflies and is an ideal choice for a pollinator garden.

  • Is Mexican bush sage toxic?

    Mexican bush sage is non-toxic to humans and pets. Unlike other sage plants, it is not usually used for medicinal or culinary purposes.