Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Russian Sage - Neither Russian Nor Sage

Russian Sage is not native to Russia.  The genus, Perovskia, is native to the mountains of central Asia, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Pakistan to China.  Perovskia was discovered in 1840, and probably named in honor of Russian governor and general, Vasily Alekseevich Perovski.

In 1839, when the British were occupied with the First Anglo-Afghan War, Russia seized the opportunity to extend its borders into central Asia.  Led by Perovski, Russian forces invaded The Khanate of Khiva with over 5000 troops and 10,000 camels under the pretense of apprehending slave traders.  Within three months, extreme winter weather forced a retreat at the cost of 1000 casualties without a single battle.

About 12 years later, Perovski returned to The Khanates of Khiva and Kokan with more experience, better planning and weather.  Perhaps the high-point of his military success was the taking of Fortress Ak-Mechet, held by Kokanians "on Russian territory".

Perovski diplomatically informed the Kokands, "Ak-Mechet is already taken, although you are inside it, and you cannot fail to perceive that without losing any of my men, I am in a position to destroy every one of you.  The Russians have come hither not for a day, nor yet for a year, but for ever.  They will not retire.  If you wish to live, ask for mercy; should you prefer to die in Ak-Mechet, you can do so; I am not pressed for time, and do not intend to hurry you.  I here repeat that I do not come to offer you combat, but to thrash you until you open your gates."

His diplomacy being successful, Perovski gained a treaty in 1854 that benefited Russia.  Perovski was made a count.  Fortress Ak-Mechet was renamed Fort Perovski.  By 1924, both Kokan and Khiva (together becoming parts of Kazakhstan) were absorbed into the Soviet Union.  In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed.  Kazakhstan is now an independent Turkic state.  Some Russians remain.

The cavalry flew by and vanished,
The storm thundered and hushed.
Lawlessness bore down, bore down -
Silence and light all around.

- Mikhail Alekseevich Kuzmin

Flowers also remain, brushed by the wind.

Russian Sage is not a true sage, though it is related as a member of the Lamiaceae family which includes lavender, mint, salvia and such.  Like many of its relatives, its leaves and stems contain aromatic essential oils.  Though known for over a century, it was not used much in ornamental gardens until fairly recently.  The favorite species has been P. atriplicifolia (pronounced at-ry-pliss-ih-FOH-lee-uh).  Being named the Perennial Plant Of The Year in 1995 by the Perennial Plant Association  helped a lot.

From a distance, Russian Sage resembles lavender with its long, wispy stems and small, light blue flowers held above silvery foliage.  Crush a few leaves between your fingers, bring to your nose.  Inhale.  The family connection is obvious.  (This is where I wish technology enabled a "scratch and sniff" link.)

Perovskia atriplicifolia grows to 36" or more and at least as wide.  Newer cultivars may be more compact.

Few gardeners would devote a garden to Russian Sage as they might to roses, but a mass planting is spectacular.  It's also very effective in mixed perennial borders for color and textural contrast.  Russian Sage is also effective in fragrance gardens, cutting gardens, naturalized meadows, butterfly and herb gardens.  It's perfect for dried flower arrangements.  Russian Sage can be grown in short hedges, open fields, borders and knot-gardens.

Do you live in an area with a dry climate?  Is your water use restricted?  When well-established, Russian Sage is drought-tolerant.  Being native to harsh environments, it tolerates inner-city pollution.  Do deer and rabbits come to your garden to dine?  Russian Sage is deer and rabbit resistant.  The essential oils may even repel some insects and vermin.

Flowers of Russian Sage, which appear from late spring to early fall, are edible.  They have a hint of sweetness.  You can sprinkle them on salads, cookies and baked goods.

Historically, Russian Sage has been used medicinally to reduce fever, but I highly recommend you ask your doctor before you try to treat yourself or others.

Russian Sage is generally hardy in USDA climate zones 5 through 9, preferring full sun and well-drained soils with pH ranging from 5.1 to 6.5.  Take a soil sample to your nearest Cooperative Extension Service Office for proper analysis.  You may pay a small fee.

Prepare the planting bed by cultivating at least 6" deep, removing all traces of weeds. Compacted soil should be cultivated to 10" deep.  Compost may be incorporated into the soil.  Incorporate 10-10-10 fertilizer at a rate of no more 2 lbs. per 100 square feet into the top 4" to 6" of soil. Avoid synthetic fertilizers contacting any part of your plants.

Space the plants 24" to 36" apart. Dig planting holes into the cultivated soil a little less deep than the depth of the growing container.  Water the plants in the pots, then drain.  Place the plants into the holes and back-fill, watering as you go. Press soil around the root balls. Do not cover entirely the root balls with soil. The tops should be slightly exposed. Add a top-dressing of mulch around the plants, not on top of them, about 1" deep.

Plant Russian Sage with other plants having similar cultural requirements.  Fertilize sparingly and allow soil to dry between watering.  The greatest cause of failure is over-watering.

For cutting and drying, clip Russian Sage with small hand clippers just before flower buds open when dew has dried.  Hang stems upside down to dry in a warm, dry, shady area.  The cuttings should dry within a week.

I love plants that are beautiful, fragrant, useful, easy to grow and with stories behind them.  Russian Sage is such a plant.

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1 comment:

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