Perovskia atriplicifolia ‘Little Spire’
Perhaps one of the most prolific autumn blooming perennial families is the Perovskia or Russian Sage. Along with being an extremely reliant late summer and fall bloomer, this plant is remarkably tolerant to less than ideal growing conditions. The only really important cultural requirement is that the soil is very well drained therefore heavier soils, although will be tolerated, they must be amended to offer excellent drainage. One of the most enduring mental images I have of this plant is a mass planting on a rather steep, southern exposure slope. The field of Russian Sage moved like the waves of the sea with butterflies and bees of all manner darting and fliting about. Needless to say, growing more than one plant makes sense and if you have a difficult slope to contend with, consider Perovskia.
The species is generally rather tall reaching 1.5m if not pinched, as well, if grown in fertile soil or partial shade. Naturally there are places for clusters of tall, billowing perennials in many boarders but best to be aware as they do increase in width also by underground stems. They belong to the Mint family and that should give you an indication of the pace that this gang can grow at. ‘Little Spire’ is a variety that grows about 60cm tall, or half the size of the parent species. Being a much more compact grower opens up many more areas in which you can consider growing her. Many of the Xeriscape gardens or gardens that require very little water will have this perennial as a foundational plant as well in parking lot medians and commercial streetscapes. Perovskia has a high tolerance for pollution such as vehicle exhaust fumes and isn’t a popular choice for munching with deer or rabbits. Perhaps the aromatic foliage has some deterrent quality for these creatures, however, I find it rather pleasing. The foliage aroma is reminiscent of edible sage, somewhat medicinal yet ‘clean’ if that makes any sense. The purple haze of flowers resembles clouds when in full bloom as Perovskia isn’t shy when it comes to showing off her blossom abilities. The flowers are borne on spikes with the individual blossoms opening form the bottom up and best of all, they continue well into the fall, often until hard frost. Given this nature, the late season pollinators are all thrilled to have late season sustenance and so much of it. For that reason alone, Perovskia should be considered. Companions that look very nice with this purple haze are Rudbeckia, Fall Chrysanthemums and Echinacea. Pinks and yellows in general contrast very well with the silvery grey foliage and purple blooms, an overall delight in my mind.
Many gardeners will simply leave the Russian Sage plants at full height through the winter in order to retain snow as insulation. In that this perennial is very hardy, the snow cover is not as critical as with more tender plants, but still and all, it provides initial water in the very early spring at melt. This is the time to clean up Russian Sage by removing the past season’s foliage and if you are growing other than the dwarf ‘Little Spire’ it’s wise to pinch or cut back by 50% the emerging growth. This early season maintenance is really all that will be required throughout the growing season, not much wrong with that now is there?
Propagation is simply a matter of division or you may consider taking softwood cuttings and rooting new plants. There really is little to no need to fertilize otherwise the dwarf attributes that you wanted from ‘Little Spire’ will all be for naught, her taller parents will become gangly and unruly, so best to starve them.
Regions of the country that enjoy milder winters or if your garden area is very well protected and in a micro-climate, Russian Sage will perform well in containers and may be overwintered. Consider again that these familys’ of plants is very tolerant of poor conditions and also little to no maintenance, somewhat ideal for a planter or container. During the early season Russian Sage will offer silvery grey foliage as a backdrop for either brightly coloured annuals and vines or perhaps other perennials such as Heuchera. The combinations are endless and only limited by your imagination.