Botany Perennials

Russian Sage Is Real Sage, but It’s Not Russian!

By Julie Boudreau

The world of Latin nomenclature never ceases to amaze me… and confuse me! Every year, plants are renamed, change botanical family, or return to their original name!

Image: Isa Macouzet sur Unsplash

Even if the scandalous discovery that I am about to reveal to you dates from 2017, it was only very recently that it came to my attention, in the form of a superb text in Spanish ! How I ended up there also remains a great mystery!

First Scandal: A Change of Name!

This fabulous plant, Russian sage, has changed its Latin name. What was known as Perovskia atriplicifolia, now bears the name Salvia yangii. It’s quite a shame, because we were just beginning to get a hang on the pronunciation of “Perovskia” without messing up!

Perovskia atriplicifolia is no more! The famous Russian sage is now called Salvia yangii. Image: Julie Boudreau

All this is very sad for George Bentham, the British botanist who first described it in 1848, under the name Perovskia atriplicifolia. Or would it rather be the Russian naturalist Grigory Karelin who discovered it first, in 1841? Needless to say, I won’t be the only one scandalized by this change of name.

In fact, the entire genus Perovskia, which had around 9 species, was swallowed up by the gigantic genus Salvia. The latter now has more than 1000 species! And prepare yourself for a second shock wave, because rosemary has also officially become a sage! The formerly Rosmarinus officinalis is now a Salvia rosmarinus. Lucky for us, the culinary sage is still a sage, Salvia officinalis!

What all these plants have in common is that they have aromatic foliage, a square-shaped stem and a bilabiate flower. But with more than 1000 representatives of the genus, it is very difficult to elaborate further on the common points of all the sages on the planet.

New Name, but Still a Classic in the Garden

In any way, Russian sage remains a beautiful herbaceous or semi-woody plant, very hardy in USDA zone 4, with a rather erect and very aerial habit. With the advent of numerous cultivars, the height of the plant varies between two and four feet (45 and 120 cm) and the foliage, quite grayish, is cut with more or less intensity. Its purple flowers are in bloom between the months of July and October.

It’s a plant that deserves all our love, because it attracts many pollinating insects and it is very resistant to drought. It’s a champion of xeriscaping (dry gardens) and it fits easily into perennial mixed borders or English gardens.

To appreciate it in all its splendor, you must grow it in a sunny location and in well-drained soil.

Second Scandal: A False Origin!

As if abandoning the pronunciation of the word “Perovskia” was not a big enough loss in itself, we must also add to the atrocity the proven fact that Russian sage does NOT come from Russia. It is rather native to Asia, more specifically to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tibet and western China, where it grows naturally in grassy meadows and hills.

Clearly, Russian sage is taking us on adventures worthy of a Russian spy movie from the 80s. But that doesn’t take away its beautiful qualities in the garden. Regardless of its true identity and origin, it remains in the top 20 of my best perennial plants for laidback gardeners! Will we dare to rename it Yang sage in the coming years?

The small flowers of Russian sage ‘Blue Spire’ attracts many pollinating insects. Image: Julie Boudreau

Julie Boudreau is a horticulturist who trained at the Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in Saint-Hyacinthe, Québec. She’s been working with plants for more than 25 years. She has published many gardening books and hosted various radio and television shows. She now teaches horticulture at the Centre de formation horticole of Laval. A great gardening enthusiast, she’s devoted to promoting gardening, garden design, botany and ecology in every form. Born a fan of organic gardening, she’s curious and cultivates a passion for all that can be eaten. Julie Boudreau is “epicurious” and also fascinated by Latin names.

5 comments on “Russian Sage Is Real Sage, but It’s Not Russian!

  1. Interesting. When I looked it up on WFO Plant List, it is still listed as Perobskia atripicifolia. When did the change happen?

    • Mathieu Hodgson

      2017! Can you believe it! WFO site seems to accept both names, strange.

  2. Truly shocking! Why not S. perovskia? Who is Yang? And who decides this nomenclature stuff?

  3. Aethochroic Actias

    There’s a big shuffling around right now because we’re now sussing out phylogenetic relationships, as opposed to using morphological features and frankly, I’m having a blast watching it happen. I think it’s beautiful!

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