Russian Sage Planting Tips

Enjoy Wispy Foliage and Low-Maintenance

Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) furnishes diffuse color in a flower bed.
David Beaulieu

Russian sage is a low-maintenance, drought-tolerant shrub, making it a great choice for xeriscaping. Its long blooming period is valued by those who seek a flower bed that remains in bloom throughout the growing season. Not to be outdone by its flowers, the plant's stems and foliage make a strong statement of their own, perhaps even outstripping the floral display as the chief reason to grow the bush.

Plant Taxonomy and Types

Plant taxonomy classifies one popular species of Russian sage as Perovskia atriplicifolia, but there are others. For a more rigidly upright type, grow the species, Perovskia longin. These plants are in the mint family. ‘Blue Spire’ is a popular cultivar.

Technically, Russian sage is classified as a woody sub-shrub. But because many people prune these bushes annually and thereby keep them relatively short, they are often treated as if they were perennial flowers.

Characteristics of Russian Sage

A graceful perennial with silver stems (so chalky in appearance they sometimes seem to be white) and feathery, silvery leaves, Russian sage plants can reach a height of 4 feet (with a spread of 3 feet) or greater if you do not prune them annually. For a more compact version, try 'Little Spire,' which matures at about 1 1/2 to 2 feet tall, with a similar spread.

This bush produces panicles of small, bluish-lavender flowers from June through September (in USDA plant hardiness zone 5). For this reason, it is loosely grouped with the long-blooming perennials.

Russian sage has fragrant foliage and attracts hummingbirds, honey bees and butterflies. Like many aromatic plants, they are also deer-resistant, and rabbits are unlikely to eat them.

Planting Zones and Growing Conditions

Indigenous to central Asia, Perovskia atriplicifolia can be grown in planting zones 5 through 9. For best results, plant them in full sun. These bushes thrive in well-drained ground but will tolerate clayey soil.

Landscaping Uses for Russian Sage

Its fine texture makes Russian sage a good choice if you're seeking contrast with plants exhibiting a coarser texture. More generally, Perovskia atriplicifolia is used en masse in border plantings and, because of its drought-tolerance, in rock gardens. If not overpowered by plants with larger, showier flowers, it can serve as a specimen plant.

In addition, given their height and their long-blooming nature, Russian sage can be an excellent choice for the back row of a flower bed. Companion plants that look great juxtaposed with Perovskia atriplicifolia include:

Russian Sage Pruning and Care

Russian sage are tough plants that need little care. Being tall, they do often require support (either staking or a peony ring) if grown individually, lest they flop over. If grown in masses, they more or less support one another. But the primary care concern with these plants is pruning, which is optional:

Why prune Russian Sage: Some gardeners choose to prune Russian sage annually. The argument for pruning is that the plant will grow to be bushier as a result of this care. At the very least, it's a good idea to cut off any dead branches to keep this perennial tidy.

When to prune Russian sage: The normal time to prune Russian sage is early spring or mid-spring, depending on the strategy you adopt.

How to prune Russian sage: There are two basic trimming strategies. One is to prune down to within a few inches of ground level in early spring and just be done with it. Another approach is to wait until mid-spring and allow the plant stems to start to fill in with leaves. You'll be able to identify the dead stems this way as the ones that aren't filling in, and you can proceed to cut them off. Then, make a judgment regarding the remaining branches. For example, if you want to start out with stems that are 1 foot tall, make your cut at 1 foot. The taller the plant starts out in spring, the taller it will end up in fall.

One reason why spring is the best time to prune (as opposed to trimming in fall) is that leaving the silver branches adds interest to the winter landscape.