How to Attract Pollinators to Your Garden

Anna's Hummingbird visits Salvia Alpine, photo credit Las Pilitas Nursery

Anna’s Hummingbird visits Alpine Cleveland Sage, photo credit Las Pilitas Nursery

I put on my walking shoes and hit the pavement last weekend in Mar Vista, Southern California, where a Native Plant Garden Tour was underway around the neighborhoods there.  It was a self-guided tour, with homeowners or landscapers being available to show you what they’ve done.  Some homeowners decided to ditch their lawns. A popular lawn-replacement idea was to redesign the front garden with succulents & cactus instead of more water-thirsty plants.

There are many different types of succulents & cacti in Southern California, but not all are California native plants.  A popular misconception in So Cal is: If it’s drought tolerant, it must be a native!  But this is not the case.  Most natives are drought-tolerant in So Cal, because they are naturally adapted to our climate. They belong here.  But, many of the succulents available in nurseries and garden centers are from other countries, such as Australia or Africa, sunny places for sure, and offering some amazing shapes to design with.  I applaud the use of drought-tolerant plants in any So Cal garden, especially this year with our 3rd year of drought.  However, what concerns me is: In their rush to plant drought-tolerant succulent gardens, folks might forget about flowers.

Swallowtail Butterflies on Salvia clevelandii, photo courtesy of Las Pilitas Nursery

Swallowtail Butterflies on Salvia clevelandii, photo credit Las Pilitas Nursery

Pollinators need flowers.  In order to invite bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds to the garden, we need to make sure there are blossoms.  Succulents, for the most part, do not flower heavily.  When they do, they usually have beautiful blooms, but these are generally short-lived.

One way to attract pollinators is to plant Sage (Salvia). Salvia’s colorful flowers and fragrant, gray leaves mix nicely with succulents. Sages are truly drought-tolerant California native plants and some are able to live as long as 25 years in drought conditions

Sages of all kinds are hummingbird, bee & butterfly magnets!  There are over a dozen different Sages native to California. Depending on your location, you can choose from: Hummingbird Sage Salvia Spathacea, California Black Sage Salvia mellifera (San Joaquin Valley), Brandegees Sage Salvia brandegei, Thistle Sage Salvia carduacea, Purple Sage Salvia leucophylla , White Sage Salvia apiana, Celestial Blue, Winifred Gilman Cleveland Alpine Cleveland Sage or Musk Sage Salvia clevelandii,  and Rose Sage, Salvia pachyphylla

Wherever you live in California, there is a Sage for your native garden. Here is a list of some of the many different Sage varieties~

Chia Sage, Salvia Columbariae, photo credit to Las Pilitas Nursery

Chia Sage, Salvia Columbariae, photo credit to Las Pilitas Nursery

White sage Salvia apiana: White sage is drought tolerant, nice looking and good for the wildlife. The main pollinator for White Sage are the Bumblebee and native wasps. Add this plant to have a healthy California garden and happy pollinators.  The Salvia apiana compacta is a hybrid created for smaller gardens, which might be the right choice for your urban lot.

Cleveland or Musk Sage, Salvia clevelandii: This is the most fragrant of the native sages. The sky blue flowers bloom from July into August, attracting many beneficial insects. Musk sage grows from the San Diego coast inland to the Anza Borrego desert. It can even grow on South facing slopes where there’s no soil for planting, only rock. Musk Sage is a very short lived perennial in clay soil, but in beach sand it is long lived and carefree. A very drought tolerant plant, Cleveland sage looks good in places with only 5-7 inches of rainfall.

Brandegees Sage, also known as Island Black Sage, Salvia brandegei:  Native to islands off the coast of Southern California, such a Catalina Island, their blooms are a deep blue. Island Black Sage can survive in most gardens with no water after the first year, hardy down to 10dgs, and beloved by hummingbirds & butterflies. It will grow in most any soil from adobe to beach sand, and looks great spilling over a hillside in the wild.

Chia sage Salvia Columbariae: Chia is an annual sage that puts on a lovely wildflower show in gravelly sandy soils.  Chia has had a long California history. Its seeds were used as food by the indigenous California people. Recognize it by its deeply dissected and very crinkly leaves growing in clean areas between chaparral.

Purple sage Salvia leucophylla:  The largest sage native to California, Purple sage can reach 6 feet in height in the wild. It can grow out of control, if you water it. Purple sage is found growing south on hillsides from Santa Maria. Along the coast it makes a good bluff plant, but Purple Sage prefers clay or loamy soil to sand.  Its flowers are a soft violet spiral, a perfect landing spot for hummingbirds and native insects. Purple sage can be used in the back of a native plant garden.

Rose Sage, Salvia pachyphylla, Photo by Las Pilitas Nursery

Rose Sage, Salvia pachyphylla, Photo by Las Pilitas Nursery

Rose Sage, Salvia pachyphylla:  The beauty queen of California sages, Rose Sage has elegant, showy flowers of pink and lavender with hints of blue.  Some years the flowers are almost as big as the plant! While fragrant, it cannot compete with Musk Sage. The foliage on Mountain desert sage is as white as white sage but the plant is more compact and the flowers are stunning. Mountain desert sage can be grown in most gardens as long as you keep it dry after the first year. If you make the mistake of watering it in late summer, this drought loving plant will probably die.

Hummingbird Sage Salvia Spathacea. Hummingbird sage is a groundcover usually found under oaks, but can also grow in sunny areas in chaparral. It is a wonderful choice for planting that shady area underneath oak trees. Look for it when hiking in Topanga Canyon! Under Coast Live Oaks, Quercus agrifolia, Hummingbird Sage can form a mat of large deep green leaves followed by magenta flowers staked out by resident hummingbirds. These plants are solely pollinated by hummingbirds, and they get very territorial about it. Hummingbird Sage can tolerate full sun along the coast, long drought and full salt spray, making it an effective choice on coastal bluffs.

You will not need to water your drought tolerant California garden much at all, but as summer gets underway, don’t forget to add water features for thirsty birds, lizards, bees, hummingbirds… everybody will be looking for a drink or a bath~

So no matter where in the country you garden, get your garden shoes on and get planting for pollinators!


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    • says

      I wish the sages would bloom all year long, as Anna’s Hummingbirds do stay with us in So Cal all year. But the sage blooms are mostly spring & throughout summer. To keep Anna’s fed in fall & winter, it’s good to have a mix blend of native plants. They enjoy also monkeyflower and manzanita~ Thanks for asking.
      kathy vilim recently posted..Easter Sunrise Over the Pacific

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