Develop a purple passion for Texas sage

Posted Saturday, Aug. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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These recent rainy spells have brought out the best in Texas sage. Some call it by its botanical name, Leucophyllum frutescens. (There are a couple of other species in the mix, too.) Others use “ceniza” (Spanish for “ash,” referring to its gray leaves) and a few describe its behavior, as they call the shrub “barometer bush.”

But whatever you call it, Texas sage is one of the most popular of our native Texas plants.

I’m no different than anyone else. I like this plant a lot. My history with it goes back a long way.

It was the summers of the late 1950s. I was a teenager, helping my dad with his herbicide research for Texas A&M University. We were working on a large ranch between Uvalde and Camp Wood, and it was my job to mark off the boundaries of each 1-acre test plot.

It seemed like there must have been 30 or more of those plots, because I went up and down over those hills with the tape measure day after day. My prime tasks: establish the corners, drive stakes in the ground, and watch out for rattlesnakes (not necessarily in that order). My dad was a Ph.D. botanist by his schooling, but range management was his specialty. We were testing various new herbicides as controls of a toxic shrubby plant called “coyotillo.”

I loved that work with my dad, rattlesnakes notwithstanding, and I learned a great appreciation for the plants native to that dry, warm part of Texas. Those hills were dotted with Texas sage, and I managed to dig up a few before the applications of herbicide, figuring that their fate back in my garden in College Station could be no worse than what they faced if they were sprayed.

Texas sage wasn’t very common in garden centers at that time, so I felt like a bit of a pioneer when I used it in landscapes I was designing from my backyard nursery. Happily, as long as it was given full sunlight and well-draining soils, it was content.

My story fast-forwards by 15 years to the mid-1970s. I’d finished two horticulture degrees at Ohio State University, and I was back in Texas with the Extension Service, working alongside one of Texas’ all-time plant heroes. Benny Simpson was native to the Texas Panhandle, where he said his dad would take him on Sunday afternoons down to the river “to see the tree.”

Benny, like I, fell in love with Texas sage — except that the research scientist in him sent him combing the hillsides around the town of George West, looking for unusual shades of this venerable shrub. To hear Benny talk, those hillsides would come alive with wall-to-wall blooms three days after a rain, and all he had to do was drive down the roads and pluck out the ones he wanted to grow for his studies.

I watched Simpson grow his plants in his TAMU research plots on Coit Road in far North Dallas. That research yielded ‘White Cloud’ (white flowers, gray foliage) and ‘Green Cloud’ (lavender flowers, green foliage). He also introduced ‘Silver Cloud’ (purple flowers and gray-white leaves) and ‘Thunder Cloud’ (smaller and more heavily flowering than ‘Silver Cloud’), both selections from L. candidum, known as violet silverleaf. It is more compact than Texas sage, and its native range is confined to Big Bend National Park and surrounding parts of Brewster County. We lost Benny about 15 or 18 years ago, but others have picked up his research, and still more cenizas have come into the marketplace.

With all the push toward water-conscious landscaping these past 15 or 20 years, many a Texas sage has been planted. For the most part, that’s a good thing, but there are a couple of dark sides to this story. Going back to my dad, he taught me as a lad that a plant is truly only “native” where you find it growing unaided. As soon as you try to move it to another site where you don’t already find it growing, it’s no longer native and it may or may not be happy in its new setting. That’s why the shrub that’s native to Southwest Texas may struggle with shade and high humidity in the Piney Woods forests. It also explains why they may not survive the coldest of our North Texas winters.

My personal suggestion before you buy and plant Texas sage? Lean toward moderation. When it’s not blooming, Texas sage is a rather cold-looking shrub. Its gray foliage can almost be overwhelming. Also, the plants’ mature heights vary from variety to variety, so check the plant tag carefully, to be sure you have a good match for the space you have available for it. Find just the right spot to showcase one (dark background behind it, full sun, perfect drainage), and you’ll have a plant to enjoy for a lot of rainy days to come.

Neil Sperry publishes “Gardens” magazine and hosts “Texas Gardening” from 8 to 10 a.m. Sundays on WBAP AM/FM. Reach him during those hours at 800-288-9227.

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