Tag Archives: sages

fun with hybrids

There are over a quarter million plant species known to biology. Of those more than 5,000 can be found in California, and 1,500 in San Diego County alone. With so many amazing plant species out there I still find myself being interesting in hybrids between the pure species.

My last post was on Sarracenia, the North American pitcher plants. The genus appears to be fairly new to the world in evolutionary terms, and all the species in the genus will hybridize easily with any of the others. And all these hybrids will continue to interbreed with the parent species or other hybrids. When you find a bog with two or more species in it, chances are good that you’ll find intermediate plants with traits of all the species present in that location.

This drives biologists crazy. Finding a plant that’s a pure species can be a major headache when the plants are out there, frolicking in the mud. But evolutionary biology acknowledges that hybrids can introduce new genes into a plant’s gene pool so that they might be better equipped to withstand some stressors that a pure species might not.

Sarracenia Judith Hindle

In addition to possible evolutionary advantages, a hybrid plant found in nature can be a really cool-looking mongrel. And human-created hybrids that have been selected for specific traits over generations can begin to take a species or genus in directions nature would never have imagined.

Here on the left is the Sarracenia hybrid Judith Hindle. I first encountered mass tissue-cultured numbers of it in the flower aisle at Trader Joe’s a couple years ago. It’s a pretty great-looking plant by itself, but imagine a whole store display of it. This human created selection derives from three species, and its pedigree can be notated: ((Sarracenia purpurea x S. flava) x S. leucophylla) x ((S. purpurea x S. flava) x S. leucophylla).

Sarracenia purpurea var burkii syn rosea

Doing the math, you an see that it’s one-fourth S. purpurea, this species. (My photo here isn’t the exact parent, just one general example of what this variable species can look like. Several taxonomists have decided that this plant I’ve shown you, S. purpurea var. burkii, is actually a new species, S. rosea, but it looks quite similar and you can get the general idea…)

Sarracenia flava coppertop

Another quarter of the ancestry comes from S. flava. (You might recognize this same photo from my last post. Once again this is just a rough estimation of what the parent looked like. It’s actual great-grandparents were S. flava var. rugelli, a plant with pure green pitchers with a red patch in the throat.)


And the final two quarters of its ancestry comes from the gorgeous S. leucophylla, the white-topped pitcher plant. I find myself comparing the hybrid with the parents, trying to see the characteristics that came through in the final hybrid. Clearly S. leucophylla has the most influence in this cross.

Sarracenia Dixie Lace

Here’s another common sarracenia, S. Dixie Lace. Larry Mellichamp, its breeder, isn’t 100% certain of its parentage, but he estimates it to be: (S. leucophylla x S. rubra) x (S. psittacina x S. purpurea). It shares two parents with Judith Hindle above, but introduces two new species into the mix.

Sarracenia rubra gulfensis ancestral form

The presence of this ancestor, S. rubra, is subtle, and is probably most manifested in the somewhat upright-growing pitchers and the robust growth habit. (Once again, the plant I’ve shown is only a close approximation of the S. rubra var. wherryi that was used for the actual cross. And yet again, this latter species has been classified as a separate species by some taxonomists.)

Sarracenia psittacina giant form

The final ancestor is S. psittacina, a plant that’s practically impossible to hide the presence of in any hybrid. The leaning growth habit and patterning of the pitchers takes several generations to fade into the background.

Salvia sagittata leaves

Hybrids can happen anywhere. In the irrigated part of my garden I have a few sage species from Europe and the Americas. These are the leaves of Salvia sagittata, the arrow-leaved sage, a plant from Ecuador.

Hybrid Salvia Seedling

Next to it I noticed a young plant which at first I thought was a seedling of the of its neighbor. It has the same light green coloration and coarse leaf texture as does S. sagittata. When I started looking closer at the leaves, however, something seemed a little off. Instead of the distinct arrow shape, the leaves are closer to oval. Seedlings sometimes take a while to develop their mature characteristics, but I started thinking that it might be a hybrid of S. sagittata with one of the other sages nearby.

Salvia nemerosa Snow Hills leaves

Three feet away is S. nemorosa. It also has coarse-textured leaves, but they’re smaller, darker green and rounder (probably “linear” to “oblong” with a “cordate” leaf base, according to the leaf morphology charts).

Salvia Hot Lips leaves

And about six feet away are several plants of the popular ‘Hot Lips’ cultivar of S. microphylla, a species from Texas into Mexico. Its leaves are smooth, much smaller, darker green and also more rounded. (I guess I’d call it an “ovate” leaf form with an “obtuse” leaf tip.)

Who do you think might be the father? I’m leaning towards S. nemorosa.

The seedling sage found a clearing in the middle of a little walkway to germinate. I’ll let the seedling bloom to see if it’s interesting–or if it’s even a hybrid at all. Seeing the flowers should help me better guess what its parents might be. If it’s worth keeping I’ll transplant it out of harm’s way. If it’s not, I’ll treat it as any other unwanted garden colonizer. Whatever the case, it’ll be an interesting little experiment.

Topic for a future post: What’s bad about hybrids?

july bloom day

For this month’s Garden Bloggers Bloom Day I have some closeup photos of some of what’s blooming in the garden. I’ve done a couple posts on using backgrounds behind plants (Background check / One way to photogrpah a tree). Inspired, all but one of these shots uses a white sheet of matboard placed behind the plants. Each color of background presents a different end result. Using white accentuates dark flowers and stems, and some of these photos are a busy network of dark lines against the light background.

There are some newcomers just coming into bloom, but many plants have been in bloom for several months. When life gives you more of the same flowers…well, I was thinking I’d try to photograph them a little differently.

I suspect the neighbors think I’m odd enough taking pictures of everything in the garden, and I thought it’d be extra-distressing if I were to be walking around the garden with a big white board as well as the camera. As a result all of these are from the quiet privacy of the back yard, with the exception of the one plant without a white background.



Purple coneflower, Echinacea purpurea.



Lion’s tail, Leonotis leonorus; Desert mallow, Sphaeralcea



Peruvian daffodil, Hymenocallis festalis; Freeway daisy, Osteospermum sp.



Verbena bonariensis; Juncus patens (with fallen leaf caught in the plant).

Some salvias:


Salvia nemerosa ‘Snow Hills’; Ivy-leaved sage (Salvia cacaliaefolia).



On the left is Andean sage (Salvia discolor with its almost black flowers set in light green calyces; on the right is Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips.’

Some California buckwheats:


Flat-topped buckwheat (Eriogonum fasciculatum)


San Miguel Island buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens)


St. Catherine’s lace (Eriogonum giganteum)



Butterfly bush (Clero- dendrum ugan- dense); seed pod of whitetop pitcher plant (Sarracenia leucophylla).



Pink and white double bougainvillea (unknown variety); Agastache aurantiaca ‘Apricot Sprite.’



Pink double bougainvillea (another unknown variety); toloache (Datura wrightii).

Thanks again the Carol of May Dreams Gardens for hosting Garden Bloggers Bloom Day. It’s a terrific way to build community among garden bloggers wanting to share the flowers in their gardens. Check out this month’s offerings!

loud music and sage

I drove all the way up to Los Angeles for an organ recital last night. I knew I was in for trouble when the usher handed me a program and offered me a pair of earplugs. But more on that later.

John hates the idea of me to taking my scooter to LA, so I grudgingly drove the gas-devouring Jeep. But to turn the situation to an advantage I stopped by the Tree of Life Nursery in San Juan Capistrano. It’s a few miles east of I-5, but ten ten minutes of driving off the interstate beats an hour and a half each direction from San Diego.

I’d been planning on doing something with the unclaimed zone between my house and the neighbor behind me, and I wanted some native plants to fill in the zone. This would be a good chance to pick up some plants without the ridiculous commute.

at-the-tree-of-life-nursery_0001The plantings around the nursery featured some vibrant spring flowers, including this stand of California poppies and vivid violet phacelia.


And this traffic cone mallow was pretty spectacular as well (probably desert mallow, Sphaeralcea ambigua).

While there I picked up some plants for my project, including some more plants of white sage (Salvia apiana) and a clone of purple sage (Salvia leucophylla ‘Amethyst Bluff’). I’ll post more on that project later in the week.

Negotiating LA rush hour traffic can be an ordeal, and doing it with a dozen plants in the back of the car wasn’t anything I was looking forward too, especially if I had to jam on the brakes. But traffic was fairly light and I got to my destination with plenty of time for a relaxing dinner before the concert.

And now, on to the concert: When the lights dimmed, a man got up to introduce the performer for the evening. Charlemagne Palestine was one of the figures active in the avant-garde music scene, first in New York around 1970, and slightly later in Los Angeles. The man introducing him apologized that during earlier rehearsals they’d blown three fuses on the organ, and that they might need to interrupt the concert to replace more fuses.

The concert location, the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, claims to have the world’s largest indoor church organ, a monster with well over 20,000 pipes. What would the sound be if you got several thousand of them going at the same time? The audience got to find out about an hour into the piece.

What had started out as a wispy cloud of delicate sustained notes had gradually gown in intensity as organ stops got added. When the composer/performer finally did a face-plant into the keyboard around the 60 minute mark and remained there unmoving for a good ten minutes, the hall shook with a throbbing earthquake of sound that with zero doubt was the loudest, most intense, most jarring ten minutes of anything I’ve ever heard in my life. (There’s a recording of Schling-Bl├Ągen, the piece Charlemagne Palestine performed in concert, but that in no way gives prepares you for the physical assault that the you’ll experience live.)

When the piece ended, I was still shaking. I wasn’t sure I could drive home very reliably, and I was glad I wasn’t on the scooter.

As I opened the car door, the smell of sage escaped from plants behind the back seat. It’s said that sage tea is good for calming the nerves, and the same could probably be said for the aroma from the plants. With all my nerves still firing on overload, it was probably the perfect remedy for what I’d just experienced. When I got home two hours later, I lay down, and went right to sleep.

PS: I’ve only talked about the loudness of the piece, but in the final analysis there was a lot of beauty and delicacy in it as well. I loved it. Music can take you many places. This piece took me somewhere I’ve never been.

hot lips

I’ve heard salvia connoisseurs talk down about this plant, Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips,’ mostly because it’s getting to be so commonly available in areas where it grows easily. But of all the sages in my garden this one has been the best performer.

Living in a sunny spot with dry-to-average garden water, the plants are covered with these flowers year-round, hitting a peak in the fall.


Common or not, the flowers make the plant really interesting. Most are two colors, a combination of scarlet and white, with no two flowers exactly alike. But often you’ll get flowers that are almost all white or all red. I’ve heard that cold weather seems to bring out the white, and that syncs up with what I’ve seen. But at the same time you’ll often still have multi-colored flowers–all on the same plant.

The growth habit is like a lot of sages, meaning the plant has the lines of a chocolate truffle left on a warm dashboard. For me, so far it grows about 30 inches tall by 60 wide. It’s supposedly hardy down around 20 degrees, but don’t expect many flowers when the frost starts up.

If you can grow it, this could be a good candidate for your list!

true blue sages

There are plenty of names for shades of blue: azure, cerulean, indigo, cobalt, ultramarine, sky, and navy. And then there’s even the special synthetic intense ultramarine shade that artist Yves Klein patented under the name “International Klein blue.”

A visit to a nursery, however, seems to come up with only a short list of plants having flowers that are truly, intensely blue. Among the more common plants pansies, delphiniums, periwinkles and cornflowers would qualify. But decades of breeding attempts with roses and phalaenopsis and cattleya orchids have failed to produced anything other than pale mauvey or lavenderey colors, mainly because those plants don’t produce the necessary blue pigments in the first place.

There are laboratory subjects that have been genetically modified to carry the genes to produce blue pigment, and they’re producing flowers that are knocking on the door of being blue. For a flower to be blue, however, in addition to having the right pigments, the pH of the petals has to be absolutely correct. Otherwise you get pinks or more of those close-but-no-cigar colors like lilac. (If you’ve played with altering the color of hydrangea blossoms or making litmus paper change from pink to blue you’re already familiar with the controlling effects of acidity. Of course the big difference is that you can accomplish hydrangea color change without going into the lab.) The basic genetic modification process creeps me out a bit, and genetically-modified carnations are sensibly banned from Europe.

Fortunately the sage genus, Salvia, contains a number of species with flowers that require no genetic manipulation to achieve their amazingly blue colors. I’ve devoted a corner of my garden to three of them: ivy-leafed sage, arrow-leafed sage, and gentian sage.

Three salvias compared

The three species compared, left to right: Salvia patens ‘Oceano Blue,’ S. cacaliaefolia, and S. sagittata.

The ivy-leafed sage, Salvia cacaliaefolia, is a robust grower, four to five feet tall and as big around as you’ll let it get. I’m starting to call it the “walking sage” because it can set down roots where the fairly lax stems touch the ground. It also sends up new stems from runners, though these don’t wander too far from the plant. Rambunctious, yes, but the plant has been easily controlled with the help of Mister Pruning Shears.

Ivy-leaved sage flower Ivy-leaved sage plant

As its common name would suggest the leaves are a little ivy-like, triangular, three inches in length, and a pleasant medium green color. The spaces between the paired leaves can approach eight or nine inches, making the plant look a little stemmy and informal, but I find the mounding plant to be graceful and attractive.

Before the flowers open the buds develop an intense, almost indigo-blue shade, about as close to International Klein Blue as you’ll find in the garden. The buds open to clean blue flowers, fairly simple tubular affairs that are about and inch and a quarter long. What the flowers might lack in size and showy complexity they make up with their sheer profusion. The plant went into the ground November 18 of last year, and it’s never been without flowers except for when the sprinkler or heavy rains knocked them off. Hardiness reported to Zone 9.

The arrow-leafed sage, Salvia sagittata, grows smaller than the previous species. So far, for me, the plant is maybe two feet tall and three wide, with the inflorescence adding a foot to the height. True to name, the leaves are shaped like an arrowhead. They easily attain six inches in length, and have an attractive light, almost lime-green coloration. Towards the end of the season the plant can lose its lower leaves and get leggy, so you might want to plant something small and mounding near the plant to disguise the stems. (I’ve planted some lime thyme.)

Arrow-leaved sage flowerArrow-leaved sage plant

The flowers are about the same size as those of the ivy-leaved sage, and take the form of small tubes with one petal modified to form a frilly little “skirt”–a handy platform for insects to land on. (If this were an orchid, the flower part would be called the labellum, the “lip.”) The blooms float on thin, dark stems that make them look like exotic little butterflies hovering over the plant. Their color is a vivid medium blue color, a main-line blue so pure it doesn’t need a fancy name. Peak bloom runs from May to late fall in San Diego. Considered a tender perennial, probably hardy into Zone 9.

The gentian sage, Salvia patens, is the newest addition to my garden. The clone I chose is ‘Oceano Blue.’ So far the plant is about 30 inches tall and 15 wide, definitely the most constrained of these three species. Leaves are oval-to-pointed (“ovate”), medium-dark green, and about two inches long.

Gentian sage flower Gentian sage plant

The flowers are almost identical to arrow-leaved sage in color–an intense medium blue–but the flowers are huge by contrast, exceeding two inches in length and height. The petals have a distinct formation that makes me think of a crab claw. I haven’t grown it through the warmest months, but it has a reputation for slowing down in its floriferousness, something I’m beginning to observe. Hardiness reported to Zone 8.

And what about the common bedding plant Salvia farinacea ‘Victoria Blue,’ the mealy cup sage? It can be a great plant, particularly in warmer, less humid climates and seasons when powdery mildew isn’t an issue. The flowers, however, range more towards blue-violet, not a pure shade of blue. So if you’re a blue purist, fuggedaboutit.