There is so much to love about Mexican bush sage. First off, no one can deny the beauty of the velvety light purple flower spikes. But it’s also the gray-green foliage, the drought-tolerance, the pest resistance, and the romantic, billowy growth habit that make Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) so adored. There is no doubt that this is a plant well worth growing. In this article, you’ll learn all the ins and outs of growing Mexican bush sage, along with tips for the best location and how to keep the plant from year to year if you live in a colder climate. Let’s dig in and learn more about this great plant.
About Mexican Bush Sage
Salvia leucantha is a perennial ornamental sage that’s often grown as an annual during the summer months in northern regions. Since it only survives the winter in warm climates that stay above 18°F, this plant is treated as an annual and grown only for a single season in all but the warmest regions. In my Pennsylvania garden, it would never survive the winter outdoors, but in South Carolina or southern Texas, the same plant will live for many years. A native of Mexico, this heat-lover with gray-green leaves thrives in hot summers, but later in this article, I’ll discuss a few ways you can overwinter it from year to year if you live in a cold region like I do.
Mexican bush sage reaches a height and width of 4 to 5 feet with a soft, open growth habit. The tapered leaves are a silvery-green on the bottom and a medium green on top. Unlike culinary sages, the leaves of this Saliva species are not flavorful. Instead, it’s grown for its good looks. In the autumn, the plants produce spires of fuzzy, light purple and white bicolor flowers that are long-lasting and prolific. Their nectar is adored by hummingbirds and bees alike. Yes, this is a plant that requires patience because it really doesn’t strut its stuff until late in the growing season but trust me…It’s worth waiting for!
Varieties of Salvia leucantha
While the straight species has many merits, there are a handful of Mexican bush sage varieties with specific traits that might suit your garden even more. Here are a few of my favorites.
‘Santa Barbara’ – A more compact plant than the straight species with a height and width of 3 feet. Looks beautiful in containers or in beds and borders mixed with other late-blooming plants. The flowers are deeper purple than the straight species.
‘Midnight’ – This variety has very dark purple flowers and a compact growth habit. It reaches 3 to 4 feet in height with a width of 4 to 6 feet. Sometimes also called ‘Purple Velvet’ or ‘All Purple’, Midnight Mexican bush sage is quick-growing and the foliage is covered with fuzzy hair. In warmer climates, this plant is in bloom from spring through fall. May be slightly less hardy than the straight species.
‘Danielle’s Dream’– This is a pink-flowering selection of Mexican bush sage. It’s tough to come by but is worth seeking out. Other names for this plant include ‘FerPink’, ‘Velour Pink’, and ‘Wellington Pink’. It tops out at just 2 to 3 feet in height.
A Good Location
If you’re going to try your hand at growing Mexican bush sage, pick a spot that receives at least 6 to 8 hours of direct sunlight per day. The hotter the better for this beauty. Since it’s drought tolerant and loves full sun, a site adjacent to a hot asphalt driveway, in a well-drained sunny border, or in a patio pot is ideal. If the plant doesn’t receive enough sun, it won’t bloom well (and might not bloom at all). A perfect choice for dry-climate gardens, this evergreen shrubby perennial needs plenty of room to spread its wings so choose a site with ample space for its projected mature width and height. It does not like heavy soils or those that are poorly drained.
When to Plant Mexican Bush Sage
In regions where Mexican bush sage is grown an annual, plant transplants only after the last spring frost date has passed and the soil has warmed. If you live in a cool or cold climate, planting Mexican bush sage too early in the spring will lead to delayed growth due to cold soil and potential frost damage. In my garden, I wait until early June to plant the nursery-grown transplants I purchase from my local garden center or the cuttings I overwinter indoors (more on how to do this later in the article). I find it’s far better to wait a little longer than to jump the gun and risk losing the plants to frost.
In regions where Mexican bush sage is winter hardy, the plants can be planted at any time, except for during the hottest months of the year. Late winter or early spring planting is best, however, so you can enjoy the late-season blooms on plants that are well-established and have had plenty of time to grow large and produce tons of new growth that will go on to host flower spikes.
Water your newly planted Salvia leucantha plants deeply and thoroughly every few days for the first month after planting. Surround the plant with a light layer of organic mulch. After that point, the roots have become more established and can handle an increasingly longer amount of time without water. You only need to make sure it has adequate water until it is established. Reduce watering over time until you are only irrigating during times of drought. Remember, this is a very drought-tolerant plant that thrives in hot conditions so babying it with lots of water isn’t necessary and may prove counterproductive.
Mexican bush sage is genetically programmed to bloom later in the season, so dousing it with fertilizers will not make it bloom earlier. However, using a liquid organic fertilizer every few weeks throughout the growing season or adding a few tablespoons of a granular organic fertilizer once every 6 weeks from the time of planting will help the plant grow larger and fuller. Since the blooms are produced on the terminal points of all the branches, the more branches the plant has, the more blooms it is likely to produce. That being said, the plant will bloom just fine without a regular fertilization program, but there’s a good chance it will generate more blooms if it’s regularly fed.
Pruning Mexican Bush Sage
If you live in a warm climate where winter stays above 18°F and this plant returns year after year, do not prune Mexican bush sage back until the late winter or very early spring. Pruning in the fall could reduce the plant’s ability to survive the winter. Wait until you see new growth emerging and then prune the plant back to a point just above that new growth.
If you live in a cold climate and are growing this plant as an annual, there’s no pruning necessary. In fact, pruning during the growing season could delay the flowering time even further and prevent you from seeing any blooms at all before the arrival of a killing frost in the fall. After the plant has been blackened by frost, you can pull it out and toss it on the compost pile. Alternatively, leave the plant stand through the winter and compost it in the spring.
How to Grow Mexican Bush Sage
Interestingly, Mexican bush sage does not produce viable seeds in quantities that are substantial enough to collect and plant (or sell), though it does occasionally self-sow in warmer gardens. Because of this, Mexican bush sage seeds are typically not available for purchase from seed sellers. Instead, these plants are most often grown from cuttings.
If you are purchasing starter plants from a nursery, they have almost always been started from cuttings taken from a mother plant. If you’d like, you can turn that one nursery-grown plant you purchase into several plants by taking cuttings of your own. Growing Mexican bush sage from cuttings is an easy process. Do know, however, that some varieties are protected by a patent and cannot legally be grown from cuttings and then resold.
Growing Mexican Bush Sage from Cuttings
To grow Mexican bush sage from cuttings, use a sharp pair of scissors to remove a 3 to 4-inch-long piece of stem from a mother plant. Remove all but the top pair of leaves. Dip the bottom ½” of the stem into rooting hormone (available here) and insert the base of the stem into a pot of sterile potting soil. Place the pot in a sunny window or under grow lights. Keep the cutting well-watered and cover the entire pot and cutting with a clear plastic bag for 3 to 4 weeks, until new roots have formed. Once the cutting has roots, you can plant it out into your garden.
How to Overwinter Mexican Bush Sage
If you’d like to overwinter your Mexican bush sage but your climate is too cold for the plant to survive outdoors, you have three options.
- Overwinter the entire plant indoors. To overwinter Mexican bush sage plants and grow them as houseplants, dig them up before the first frost and pot them into large containers with drainage holes. Cut the plant back to a third of its current size. Move the pot into a well-lit room or place it under grow lights. Water it sparingly throughout the winter once every 4 to 6 weeks. Slowly reintroduce it to outdoor conditions in spring, after the danger of frost has passed.
- Overwinter the entire plant in a semi-dormant state. Another option is to pot up your Mexican bush sage and move the pot into a garage or shed that stays just above freezing in the winter. Water it sparingly every 6 weeks. The plant will shift into semi-dormancy so only minimal light is needed. Yes, the plant will likely drop all its leaves and depending on how much light it receives, only the roots may survive. But, come spring, move the plant outdoors slowly (move it back into the garage at night or anytime cold temperatures are expected), and it will sprout new growth from the roots.
- Overwinter cuttings. Another option for those who don’t have the room to overwinter an entire plant is to take a bunch of cuttings using the method described above and grow them on a sunny windowsill or under grow lights until spring arrives. When using this method, you’ll have to pinch the plants back three or four times throughout the winter.
More Tips on Mexican Bush Sage
- The flowers make terrific cut flowers. They have a long vase-life and a velvet-like texture.
- If you live in a warm climate and plan to overwinter the plant outdoors, choose a well-drained site. Wet or boggy soils increase the chances of root rot during the winter.
- Mexican bush sage plants can be ordered online here if you can’t find a local source.
- A member of the mint family, the foliage of Salvia leucantha is fragrant and it has square stems rather than round.
- Mexican bush sage is both deer and rabbit resistant.
- Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds adore this plant. It makes a great addition to a full sun or light shade pollinator garden.
I hope you’ll give Mexican bush sage a try in your garden, regardless of whether you’re a warm-climate or a cold-climate gardener. Whether grown as an annual or a perennial, it’s a lovely addition to the garden.
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Colin Mansell says
Thank you for a great article. I grow 3 varieties, being: ‘Midnight” “Danielle’s Dream and a white form. I also live in a climate that allows for all year growing with temperatures ranging from 32 – 120 degrees. They survive well and flower profusely. I live in Australia in a town called Mildura and state of Victoria. Currently have about 95 varieties of the salvia genus.
Jessica Walliser says
Wow! That’s a lot of salvia. They are such great plants.
Suzi Gilmore says
I’d love to grow this. Can you grow it from seed or is it best to start it from a nursery transplant?
Jessica Walliser says
It’s best to start from a nursery transplant or a stem cutting if you know someone who grows it already.