Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Jerusalem Sage

For me, some of the most rewarding plants are those that you don't know anything about when you put them in the ground and they end up being an unexpected stellar performer. These plants may come from friends or you might buy them on impulse at a nursery or gardening center. You plop them in the ground somewhere, forget about them (if you are like me) and lo and behold, they rise up and put their neighboring companions to shame. 

Case in point - Jerusalem Sage (Phlomis fruticosa). I bought it years ago at a local plant sale when Margie Anderton told me I needed to have it in my garden. Margie is one of my gardening gurus so I trust her recommendations. She was right of course and Jerusalem Sage has become a favorite of mine and it gets better every year.

A native of the Mediterranean, it has many characteristics that prompt admiration. First, woolly, velvety leaves are silvery gray/green with white undersides. They appear on a robust, compact plant that gets much larger than what I had anticipated. I planted it in front of a border - big mistake - as this plant can get up to 4' x 4' according to descriptions. It would be better placed in the middle or back of a border. 

In early spring (April), fat flower buds appear in whorls up the stems which open to bright lemon-yellow flowers that usually last at least a month and appear throughout the summer. The fruit which appears afterward also last a long time. It is woody and can be trimmed back in spring after it flowers. I've never trimmed it although I am going to this year because it just keeps getting bigger.

Hardy to at least 20 degrees, it needs good drainage but otherwise minimal care. It is drought tolerant once established. This is a plant that does exceptionally well in California and dry, warm climates. In our garden, it gets complete shade from 1pm onward which does not diminish the bloom. In fact, plants in Alabama prefer a bit of shade to keep the yellow flowers from washing out. I've read that this plant reseeds easily although I've never seen this happen in the border (probably because of the crowded conditions).

There are other types of Phlomis available with slightly different characteristics including some that have purple flowers.

Text and photos by Phillip Oliver, Dirt Therapy

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