Stuff In My Yard: Pineapple Sage

Salvia elegans, taken with iPhone

Salvia elegans

It’s fall, definitely and thoroughly fall, and the real show-stopper in the garden at the moment is the pineapple sage.

My mother grew pineapple sage, and I remember it fondly as a small potted annual herb, pleasant-smelling and vigorous, but not particularly large, and I’m not sure if it ever actually flowered.

Now I live in the South.

Pineapple sage is a shrub down here. It may or may not overwinter here in Zone 7b–luck and placement is a factor–but it hardly matters because it grows to massive proportions in a single season. The one in the picture (cultivar “Golden Delicious” which I highly recommend for the foliage color) comes up past my shoulders, is covered in flowers, and I spend most of the summer hacking it back to keep it from eating the rest of the plants.

Originally from the highlands of Mexico and, as I said, VERY vigorous, it’d be an odd plant for me to grow, but it’s actually got some really good points. It flowers very late, when the days have gotten short, and offers a last good meal to late-migrating hummingbirds and a serious nosh for Cloudless Sulphurs and other butterflies.  (I’ve seen a whole flock of the butterflies…flight? swarm? flurry? hovering over it in the last few weeks.) It’s a very low seed producer–I’ve grown multiple plants for multiple years and yanked all of one seedling in that time.  And all that pruning in summer is actually kinda useful, because I can use it as what’s known in permaculture as a “mulch crop” either dropping it on top of the soil or using it as a layer in a sheet mulch bed.  (Half the beds I’ve built are based on a layer of pineapple sage cuttings.)

Plus you can cook with it–apparently it’s a marvelous spice–use it in iced tea and fruit salad, and it’s used extensively in Mexican folk medicine and treats anxiety in mice. (I do not have any anxious mice to treat, and honestly haven’t tried cooking with it, but it’s nice to have the option.) And it’s gorgeous, of course, and a heckuva final show in a garden winding down for autumn.

In fall, I stop hacking it back and just let it go, whereupon it flowers like crazy and then, when winter hits, becomes a tangle of stems under the birdfeeder (I like to grow it under–and around–the birdfeeder) which provides cover for the juncos and sparrows, who treat it like a jungle gym.

Full sun, takes clay soil very well, handles humidity with ease, and is semi-drought tolerant once established, although it gets pretty wilty and is a bit of water-hog in a pot.  It’s propagated vegetatively–it doesn’t run or it’d be entirely too vigorous for me to plant, but you could root a cutting of the stuff on the surface of Venus, and lots of people bring it inside for the winter, where it continues to flower happily for quite a long time.  I yanked some up that was eating its neighbors and shoved it rather carelessly into the ground at the edge of the driveway, which is packed clay and gravel, and then watered it twice and forgot it was there. It survived a solid month of drought in seriously punishing soil and while it’s not nearly as pretty as the stuff under the birdfeeder, it is very much alive and growing. This stuff is like iron.

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