Primary Colors: Three for the Hummingbirds

By: Carol Bornstein

Carol Bornstein is one of Southern California’s most highly respected native plant specialists and co-author with David Fross and Bart O’Brien…

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One of the many benefits of gardening with California’s native plants is the pleasure derived from observing birds, lizards, butterflies, and other creatures that are attracted to our state’s flora. In fact, some people become gardeners in order to create habitat for wildlife. This artificial, yet valuable life support helps make up for the tremendous loss of natural habitat that has occurred since Europeans colonized the state. Whether motivated by this noble cause or simply to add more beauty to one’s garden, planting any of the three newest introductions from the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden will ensure the arrival of hummingbirds. On their own, the yellow, red, and blue flowers of Salvia spathacea ‘Avis Keedy’, Galvezia juncea ‘Gran Cañon’, and Salvia ‘Pacific Blue’ offer plenty of primary colors, with iridescent hummingbirds a dashing bonus.

Salvia spathacea ‘Avis Keedy’. Author’s photographs

Salvia spathacea ‘Avis Keedy’. Author’s photographs

An Unlikely Sport

As its common name of hummingbird sage (Salvia spathacea) would suggest, attracting these aerial wizards is practically guaranteed. Although still absent from mainstream nurseries, this beautiful herbaceous groundcover is fairly easy to obtain from growers who specialize in California natives. Arranged in distinct whorls along one- to three-foot-tall stalks, the magenta blossoms emerge from dark maroon to ruby red bracts in late winter or spring. The three- to eight-inch-long, somewhat wavy leaves carpet the soil as the rhizomes spread underground. The entire plant is covered with sticky hairs that impart a delicious, fruity aroma upon contact.

Thanks to Avis Keedy, a much-loved volunteer and avid naturalist, the botanic garden is delighted to introduce a yellow-flowered form of hummingbird sage, Salvia spathacea ‘Avis Keedy’. She discovered the colony in an oak woodland near Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County. The unusual lemon yellow petals fade to creamy white and are backed by lime green bracts. Based on feedback from our evaluators up and down the state, ‘Avis Keedy’ is suitable for all but desert or montane regions and grows well in most soils in either sun or part shade (preferred away from the coast). An occasional irrigation in summer will keep this drought-tolerant native looking vibrant; with no summer irrigation, the leaves will slowly turn brown as the soil dries out. Once the dried flower stalks are no longer attractive, cut them off at ground level. That annual grooming is all that is needed to maintain this otherwise carefree perennial. New shoots will emerge with the autumn rains, signaling the end of its dormant phase. Salvia ‘Avis Keedy’ combines well with Pacific Coast hybrid irises, pink-flowering and chaparral currants (Ribes sanguineum var. glutinosum and R. malvaceum), coffeeberry (Rhamnus californica), upright forms of manzanita (Arctostaphylos), and the variegated foliage of Ceanothus griseus var. horizontalis ‘Diamond Heights’.

Galvezia juncea ‘Gran Cañon’

Galvezia juncea ‘Gran Cañon’

A Prolific Red

The lipstick red blossoms of island bush snapdragon (Galvezia speciosa) are well known to native plant gardeners. Blooming intermittently year-round, these luscious flowers are frequented by hummingbirds and hold up well in flower arrangements. The rather lax branches bear one-inch, elliptic-ovate, medium green leaves and can be loosely trained onto a trellis or allowed to sprawl and form a medium-sized ground cover.

Baja bush snapdragon (Galvezia juncea), a closely related species, is occasionally available from specialty nurseries. The form that is commonly sold has downy leaves that are smaller and lighter green than those of G. speciosa. The more typical form of G. juncea, which is much more evocative of its Latin name, has rush-like, almost leafless green or blue-green stems. The Santa Barbara Botanic Garden has been cultivating this version for more than thirty years, mostly in a remote area where few visitors venture. After we planted a specimen in a large ceramic pot at our home demonstration garden and others along the more traveled path around the meadow, visitors suddenly started asking for it at our on-site nursery.

Giving in to the realization that conferring a cultivar name would bring wider recognition, we decided to name our most recent collection Galvezia juncea ‘Gran Cañon’. Despite the desert-like climate and fast-draining soil of its natural habitat on Cedros Island (off the western coast of Baja California), ‘Gran Cañon’ has done surprisingly well in the clayey soils at the botanic garden and tolerates considerable moisture. When grown in full sun with occasional irrigation, it flowers practically non-stop. The inch-long, tubular red flowers are individually not as striking as those of G. speciosa, but they impress by their sheer numbers, and the hummingbird activity around this shrub is remarkable. When the three- to six-foot-tall plants get too woody or spread beyond their allotted space (decumbent branches may take root), simply coppice them when a new growth cycle begins. In frost-free areas, gardeners seeking a fine-textured, floriferous plant to complement bold forms or spiny succulents will find ‘Gran Cañon’ to be a great choice.

Salvia ‘Pacific Blue’

Salvia ‘Pacific Blue’

True-blue Hybrid Vigor 

California has quite a few blue-flowered native sages as well as numerous cultivars. Adding yet another to this bounty, we offer Salvia brandegeei ‘Pacific Blue’. This vigorous cultivar cropped up in the garden’s Dudleya display several years ago and was fancied by horticulturists in our evaluation network. Its robust character, lovely and abundant blue flowers, and pleasing fragrance will be especially appealing to gardeners who have had difficulty growing the more finicky blue sages.

Brandegee sage naturally occurs in coastal sage scrub on Santa Rosa Island and in a few localities in northwestern Baja California. It is quite similar in appearance to the much more common and widespread black sage, Salvia mellifera. Unlike the pallid blue flowers of Brandegee sage, those of ‘Pacific Blue’ are gentian blue. The individual blossoms are barely one-half-inch long, but are borne in profusion on branched inflorescences, one to two feet in length, that flower for several weeks in late winter and spring. The erect to arching stalks accentuate the fountain-like form of the plant, which is three to four feet tall and four to six feet wide. Like the species, the aromatic, narrow green leaves of ‘Pacific Blue’ have a pebbled texture above and downy white undersides.

Salvia ‘Pacific Blue’ is a drought-tolerant cultivar that grows best in full sun in reasonably well-drained soil. An occasional deep watering during summer will circumvent its drought-deciduous tendency. To maintain a bushy habit, remove the spent flower stalks and cut the upper branches back by one-third in late summer or fall. The chocolate brown seed heads are attractive in dried arrangements, and the nutritious seeds within are eaten by many species of birds. Aphids occasionally infest the new growth but are easily controlled with a strong spray of water. ‘Pacific Blue’ partners well with island bush poppy (Dendromecon rigida var. harfordii), our Lord’s candle (Yucca whipplei), golden yarrow (Eriophyllum confertiflorum), Lessingia ‘Silver Carpet’, various bunchgrasses, and dudleyas.


A Resource Guide

In addition to Garden Growers Nursery at the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, the following wholesale nurseries intend to produce one or more from this trio of plants. Ask your local retail nursery to contact them for you.

Matilija Nursery, Moorpark, www.matilijanursery.com (retail & wholesale)

Native Sons Wholesale Nursery, Arroyo Grande, www.nativeson.com

San Marcos Growers, Santa Barbara, www.smgrowers.com

Suncrest Nurseries, Watsonville, www.suncrestnurseries.com

Tree of Life Nursery, San Juan Capistrano, www.treeoflifenursery.com (retail & wholesale)

For information about sources for these new plants, as well as past selections from the garden’s plant introduction program, check out the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden’s website (http://www.sbbg.org/index.cfm?fuseaction=
livingcollections.pip)
. Wholesale nurseries interested in commercial propagation should contact the author at cbornstein@sbbg.org.