White Sage and Bees and our other sage friends

bee in sage

One of my favorite plants in the garden (I’ve posted about it before) is in bloom right now: the white sage, Salvia apianaSalvia apiana means “bee sage” and boy howdy did they get that one right. This sage puts up tall spikes covered with small white flowers that bees can’t resist. Unfortunately, our white sage is situated right by the garden path. So these days, every time I go into the garden I have to squeeze past the leaning spires, praying I won’t be stung, because the plant is thick with bees. Covered. It hums.

Now, these workers are so busy that they don’t have time to be aggressive. For instance, they let me stand around taking blurry pictures of them working, until I got the one above. But stings happen by unfortunate mischance in crowded conditions. I suppose I could cut back the spikes, but whom am I to interrupt this passionate sage & bee love affair?

Besides, it’s really pretty. The spikes are about six feet high, but delicate, like fairy lances.

white sage spires

Here is a pic of the white sage as seen from our back door. I decided to leave in the wheelbarrow and some buckets of who knows what, and The Germinator ™ for scale.  Right now this salvia is the star of the garden.

white sage off our patio

All the sages are blooming now, actually.  The ability to fill the yard with huge, wildly fragrant sages is, to my mind, one of the principle inducements toward living in Southern California. I enjoy the aromatics of our Mediterranean and native chaparral plants as much as the bees do. Here’s what we’ve got going right now–and I think I’m going to add more this fall.

Below is our native black sage, Salvia mellifera, just coming into flower. The bees like this sage, too. (They like all sages). This one arranges its flowers in little sipping cups for them. It has dark green leaves, which is less common than greyish foliage in the native sages. It brings reliable dark green foliage into the garden, and the foliage is powerfully fragrant. If you want to mellow out or soothe sore muscles, you could try throwing a a branch of this in the bath.

black sage blossom

Our other native sage, Cleveland sage, Salvia clevelandi, lives a harsh existence out in the front of our house, occupying a formerly barren strip of sun baked clay above the black roof of our subterranean garage. The heat out there has moved its time clock along at a faster pace than the mellifera in the shady back yard. The blossoms are almost spent on the Cleveland. I’m not sure what else could live in that spot, except for prickly pear, so I’m very happy it’s been so sporting about growing there. And of course, bees like it.

sage garage

We also have an expanding patch of clary sage, Salvia sclarea in our back yard. This sage is native to the Mediterranean. I planted this one on a whim, to fill a temporarily empty spot, but since then it has spread and really established itself as a player in the garden and now I find I’m just going to have to keep it and work around it. Most of the year clary sage is about knee high, with big, thick, fuzzy green leaves. But in the spring it sends up flower spikes to compete with the Salvia apiana. They are really gorgeous.

clary sage flower

The flowers are structured like the white sage flowers, but bigger. This particular shape seems to make bees giddy with happiness.

clary sage leaf

Above are the big fuzzy leaves and a flower that has yet to open. And below is the shape of the flower spikes. The spikes stand chest high, but like to fall over, like this one:

clary sage

Clary sage has medicinal uses, but I’ve not tried it for anything myself. I’ve also heard you can make fritters of the leaves….which is interesting. Of course, I’d eat just about anything if it was made into a fritter.

And last but not least is my culinary sage, tucked in with some thyme and mint, and beleaguered by the nasturtium. It’s not flashy, but its strong and knows what it’s about. It’s also indispensable in the bean pot.

culinary sage

Do you have a favorite sage? Do you have any recommendations for my next round of planting? I’m thinking about adding at least two more to the grounds of our estate.

Leave a comment


  1. I have a couple of Mexican bush sages in my front yard. I actually just figured out what they are, I got them from a neighbor as she was thinning out her huge flower bed.

    They are beautiful and have great fuzzy flowers. I am also concerned that they are what my 13-year-old is so horribly allergic to right about now.

    I pretty much ignore these plants–the hummingbirds love them, and I do have to watch the bees when I want to turn on the water, as I have to walk through them.

    Once I year I cut them back to the ground. Otherwise they get leggy and they would, truly, take over everything if they had their way.

    My poor cooking sage is 8 years old and still 8 inches tall. I’m not sure what it doesn’t like.

    • We have Mexican Sage, Salvia leucantha, in our yard, too — and I totally forgot about it! Hope it doesn’t feel left out. I guess that mentally I categorize it differently than the other salvias, somehow. Also, it’s past its bloom here, so has faded into the background.

      But yes, gorgeous flowers! They do pretty well as cut flowers, and the hummingbirds do love them. And yep, they have to be cut back ruthlessly. They are better for the abuse! 🙂

      Some sages just stay low to the ground– I’d say if your cooking sage is 8 years old and still alive it’s all right.

    • Ah, I learned about that plant when I was investigating plants for my mother’s house. She lives in Arizona. I’ve never seen the Texas Ranger here in California, but it is spectacular.

      I think a lot of shrubby, greyish, aromatic plants got tagged as “sages” in the early days — so the name sticks in the common names for many plants.

  2. I’m glad you did this post to show what all the different sages look like. I’m going to plant several for the bees in our garden!

    • Pineapple sage is high on my list. I know it has many fans, and red flowers would be nice.

  3. Thanks for this! I did not previously have a favorite sage, but your post alerted me to Salvia mellifera. Since my favorite insect species is Apis mellifera, and since the bees like S. mellifera, I’ve now officially adopted S. mellifera as my favorite sage.

    Ah — Santa Barbara City College tells me that “mellifera” means “honey-bearing” (http://www.biosbcc.net/b100plant/htm/smellifera.htm). No wonder the bees like it so!

  4. I’m so envious – here in Ontario sage blooms are still a long way off. I think your computer spell check might be a little overly enthusiastic though, because salvia has been turned into saliva throughout your post – which made me giggle, because I’m childish that way.

    • Oh no! Saliva?? I didn’t even notice. Thank you for pointing out the toilet paper stuck to my shoe.

  5. you might like Salvia spathacea, the only CA sage with dark pink or reddish flowers. It’s large leaves are more similar to your clary sage than to most CA sages. It likes part shade, and spreads by rhizomes but doesn’t become a pest. Ours is in a really challenging spot between a lemon tree and a fence and might look better now had I given it some supplemental water during the dry winter we had, however it lives on.

    Also the annual Salvia columbariae or chia is nice to have around.

  6. i vote for sonoma sage (Salvia sonomensis). it makes a nice ground cover…

  7. My favorite sage isn’t a native, but Canary Island sage is a really dramatic show-stopper. At its best it is about the size of a VW Beetle so you really have to be committed. I didn’t know this when I planted mine, but I got lucky in putting it in a spot that can accommodate its hugeness, and the bees and hummers all adore it. It re-roots and volunteers all over the place, so if anyone wants one . . .

  8. Big Basin Sagebrush is our natural sage: Artemisia tridentata. Slow growing, perhaps 9 feet high after 20 years, 100 to 250-year lifespan. Not “pretty”, but the sight of a sagebrush-covered hillside fills me with a comforting sense of “being at home”. After a rain (fairly rare here in eastern Oregon) the smell of sagebrush is strong and refreshing, giving proof of abundant life here in the high desert country!

    • I was camping this weekend, surrounded by tridentata. It is common here in CA too, in the dryer, wilder places. I also love the scent.

  9. I live in pembrokeshire wales and the bees love the locally sold purple sage. Its beautiful purple flowers are a joy to beehold on summer days. X

  10. Hi, I am doing research on drought-resistant honey plants. It would be helpful to me if you could tell which salvia species are most attractive to bees that are resistant to drought. If you had to do a ranking of the most attractive salvias to bees, which species would you choose?
    Thank you!

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