A Russian sage plant is neither a sage nor entirely Russian. Named for 19th-century Russian General V.A. Perovski, this member of the mint family has moved from its Central Asian origins into a wide variety of European and Western residential gardens and other settings. Like its military namesake, Russian sage tolerates hard conditions, blooms modestly but consistently over a long season and contributes a quiet presence to both naturalized and cottage gardens.
Botanically, Russian sage is a member of the mint family. Its botanical name, Petrovski atriplicifolia, refers to the resemblance of its leaves to those of members of the saltbush (Atriplex) family, as well as memorializing a Russian general. Like most mints, Russian sage is partly woody and deciduous, with a pungent odor noticeable in all parts of the plant. Unlike some mints, Russian sage is quite tolerant of alkaline soils and drought.
Petrovskia possesses the evocative quality of other plant names from the 19th century. New specimens, like the flamboyant poinsettia, were named for such discoverers as Joel Poinsett, first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico; the wide variety of plants named for Charles Darwin testify to his adventuresome explorations. It is fair to speculate that petrovskia constituted one of the happier remembrances of the struggles of Britain and Russia over Afghanistan and Pakistan in colonial wars dubbed "the Great Game," occupying much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Originating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, petrovskia may have provided camel forage along the Silk Road for centuries, traveling westward with curious combatants and explorers.
Petrovskia currently exists in seven varieties, ranging from one and a half to six feet high. Leaves are serrated, coated with silky hairs and light-to-silvery green in color in all varieties. On some varieties, leaves are small and light enough to be described as ferny or cloud-like. Rows of tubular flowers emerge in mid to late summer on long slender stems, often appearing to float above the plant.
One of the most common uses of petrovskia is as background for summer annuals. This light, frothy blue cloud provides a soft frame for all kinds of strong annual colors. Plant taller varieties as companions to roses and other specimen plants that will benefit from a highlighting background. In general, all varieties of petrovskia tend to be strongly upright, leaning or stretching toward the ground only when in search of additional sunlight. Plants are drought-tolerant but will also tolerate ordinary watering as part of a mixed flower bed.
Although this is a Central Asian native, petrovskia performs very well in the xeriscape gardens of high desert areas in the U.S. Consider emphasizing its tolerances for low water and sandy soils, combining it with ornamental grasses and other drought-toleraters. In these settings petrovskia loses its softness but not its charm, contributing strong verticals and purple/blue and silver shades to the color scheme.
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