Sunday, August 05, 2007

Russian Sage

What’s blooming in the area: Apache plume, roses, rose of Sharon, buddleia, trumpet creeper, silver lace vine, morning glories, datura, silver-leaf nightshade, daylily, canna, purple phlox, bigleaf globemallow, bouncing Bess, bindweed, white sweet clover, goats head, yellow evening primrose, velvetweed, toothed spurge, pigweed, mullein, Queen Anne’s lace, heliopsis, Tahokia daisy, cultivated and native sunflowers, golden hairy aster, goldenrod, hawkweed, horseweed, goats beard, wild lettuce, side oats and blue grama grass; apples much redder in orchards

What’s blooming in my garden, looking north: Blackberry lily, golden spur columbine, coral beardtongue, hartwegii, squash, perky Sue, fern-leaf yarrow, chocolate flower, blanket flower, coreopsis, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, chrysanthemums.
Looking east: Garlic chives, large-leaf soapwort, sweet alyssum, pink salvia, veronica, winecup, hollyhock, sidalcea, California and Shirley poppies, pink bachelor buttons, African marigolds..
Looking south: Bundle flower, perennial sweet pea, tomatilla, cosmos, zinnia.
Looking west: Caryopteris, Russian sage, catmint, leadplant, flax, white spurge, purple ice plant, ladybells, sea lavender, Monch aster, purple coneflower.
Bedding plants: Sweet alyssum, snapdragons, petunia, Dahlberg daisy, tomatoes.
Inside: Aptenia, zonal geranium.
Animal sightings: Humming birds, ants, grasshoppers, bees in caryopteris and catmint; insect webs; something, no doubt heavy birds, has been breaking off sunflower heads before they open; flock with white bands at the ends of their tails has been eating something along the east fence; few cherries left.
Weather: Some rain last night after week of storms that blew through, but left only drizzles and moments of humidity; not enough water yet to germinate áñil del muerto.
Weekly update: In this summer when the most spontaneous enthusiasm is immediately channeled into a media event suitable for commercial tie-ins, it’s pleasant to think maybe Russian Sage is a fad that escaped its handlers.
George Bentham described the central Asian Labiatae in 1848, and it remained a British novelty noted by people like William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll, and Christopher Lloyd until the 1980's when someone began brokering it to the merchants who serve serious gardeners of the upper middle class. Wayside Gardens first offered the species, Perovskia atriplicifolia, in 1987. It was also sold by Milaeger and White Flower Farm that year. I bought it from one of them, and it quickly grew into a wide, 3' high herbaceous perennial that didn’t die back in Oakland County, Michigan.
The gray-green cut-leaf near shrub began its diffusion from the cognoscenti around 1991 when Mellinger added it to the catalog. That same year, Milaeger added a Swiss cultivar, Longin, that didn’t sprawl. Spring Hill promoted the species into the world of mass marketing the following year.
Its first major media campaign occurred in 1995 when the nurserymen’s trade association named it Perennial Plant of the Year. That generated press releases for writers, extension agents and other professionals who produce plant of the week or month columns, as well as fodder for magazines that tout new items in their early spring issues. Since the award didn’t list a cultivar, the label was applied to any Perovskia, but most often to Blue Spire, which Milaeger had begun offering in 1993.
Despite the publicity, despite the appearance of Ernst Pagels’ earlier blooming Filigran in Milaeger’s Perennial Wishbook in 1996, despite the availability of older varieties in more catalogs, the species was still difficult to find when I needed one in 1997. I finally located a cutting in the back display area of a Santa Fe florist that was preparing to sell its land for development.
That was pretty much the state until 2000 when Arne Maynard and Piet Oudolf won best garden in the Chelsea Flower Show competition, and Oudolf released books on natural garden design with Noel Kingsbury and Henk Gerritsen. He’d opened his own nursery in 1982 and helped Aad Zoet form a Dutch grower’s cooperative to market perennials to wholesalers in 1998. One of the first plants they featured was Little Spire, patented in 2000 by Herbert Oudshoorn.
Russian Sage spread through the next tier of suppliers. One Future Plant customer, Van Bourgondien, offered Little Spire in 2001. Jung added Blue Spire in 2002. Santa Fe Greenhouse offered more varieties. But there the plant stayed, languishing in catalogs, not spreading to the cheapest outlets in Bloomington, Illinois, not available in the local hardware stores.
Then about two years ago, the two-lipped blue flowers were ubiquitous in late July and August. Monrovia, among others, was suggesting Little Spire was a good substitute for lavender. A friend tells me that was a bad strategy, because it you’re expecting the European herb, it stinks. Copywriters prefer to say "pungent" or "aromatic."
Others, including the Denver Water Board, were promoting the deep-rooted Blue Spire as xeric. North Carolina planted the aluminum-white square stems in highway medians, and the coronal racemes materialized in parking lot islands in Santa Fe where the dark purple funnels fit the sun-bleached pallette favored by southwestern designers.
Pots appeared in local hardware stores, but didn’t sell until prices were reduced at the end of the season. Then it was used like forsythia: at least four planted it as a specimen near the house, more than dozen put a single plant or small clump near the outer fence or boundary. None yet have the natural plantings promoted by Oudolf, but one has a xeriscape complete with gravel.
Someone down the road used them to line a straight, asphalt drive. The house is a simple, low two-story brick ranch set near the rear of a long narrow lot filled with genuine green grass, kept clipped. The walk to the house and head of the drive are screened by pruned, formal hedges. Everything reflects the abstract art that spawned that 1950's geometric style.
I don’t know if they originally planned to line the drive, or did it on impulse, when the plants were available. Two weeks ago they received another dozen plants, which they added to the other side of the drive, either to extend the design or replace dead roots.
Those plants, blooming on one side, becoming established on the other, represent the future of an overhyped product in the valley when, like this year, it’s no longer offered in the local stores. It will spread when people give away cuttings and suckers, or when people, like my neighbors, make a deliberate decision that it fits into an existing aesthetic.
Photograph: Russian sage growing down the road, 25 August 2007.

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