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Becca Dickstein: Big red sage fragrant, pretty and hard to find

Although big red sage, Salvia pentstemonoides, was thought to be extinct in the 1950s, it was rediscovered growing in the Texas Hill Country in the 1980s and you can grow it in North Texas today.

Because it is so pretty and amenable to cultivation, it has entered the nursery trade, although it can be frustratingly hard to find.

Big red sage is a well-behaved garden plant and blooms from June through the fall. The 1.5- to 2-inch flowers appear on spikes that grow above the foliage and are deep-red to purplish-red in color.

The plant has a pleasant citrus fragrance and is deer resistant. It self-seeds, but not prolifically, and can be propagated through cuttings.

Big red sage is a hummingbird magnet and attracts butterflies. It may be pruned in the late fall after it finishes flowering and will die back to a rosette after a freeze. New growth recurs in the spring.

In nature, big red sage is only found on banks along streams and on seeps on limestone ledges in the central Edwards Plateau. In North Texas, big red sage usually grows 18 to 36 inches wide and 30 to 48 inches tall. Its 4- to 6-inch leaves are deep green, elongated and glossy, looking similar to penstemon leaves, which explains its botanical name. Big red sage was first described by the great Texas botanist Ferdinand Lindheimer in the 1840s.

Big red sage thrives in partial and dappled shade, although with more water, it can be grown in full sun. It tolerates a range of soil pH. It should be given supplemental water during its first season in the garden.

After it is established, it is moderately drought tolerant. During a summer dry spell, big red sage will need to be watered deeply as often as once every 10 days depending on the temperature. Like many Texas natives, the plant should have adequate drainage; it will not tolerate “wet feet.”

Look for the NICE! Plant of the Season signs and information sheets on your next visit to a participating North Texas nursery. Participating nurseries include Four Seasons Nursery, Meador Nursery and Painted Flower Farm, all in Denton; Shades of Green Nursery in Frisco and Schmitz Garden Center in Flower Mound. Thank you for using native plants.

BECCA DICKSTEIN, a member of the Trinity Forks Chapter of the Native Plant Society of Texas, is on the University of North Texas biological sciences faculty.