Salvia microphylla (Baby Sage)

Salvia microphylla, commonly called Baby Sage or Little Leaf Sage, is an aromatic, much-branched, evergreen shrub with a compact round shape and upright growth habit. It has small oval green leaves and racemes of tiny bright reddish-pink flowers arranged in pairs or whorls around the stem. The flower colour can be different depending on the variety.

It is a drought-tolerant and moderately hardy plant native to the area spanning Arizona, Mexico and Guatemala. 

It is a very diverse species that can easily hybridise, which has led to the appearance of multiple varieties and cultivars.

Salvia microphylla stem (Baby sage, little leaf sage, Grahams sage, Blackcurrant sage)

Quick Overview

TYPE

Type Shrub

HEIGHT & WIDTH

Salvia microphylla height and width

BLOOM TIME

Salvia microphylla bloom time

SUNLIGHT

full sun / semi shade

HARDINESS

hardiness (-8ºC / 17º F)

DROUGHT TOLERANCE

drought tolerance aprox 3 months

ORIGIN

Origin Arizona, Mexico and Guatemala

Taxonomy

  • Botanical name: Salvia microphylla  (SAL-vee-ah my-kro-FIL-uh
  • Family:  Lamiaceae (lay-mee-AY-see-ee)
  • Common name:  Baby Sage, Blackcurrant Sage, Graham’s Sage, Little Leaf Sage
  • Synonyms: Salvia grahamii
NameMeaning
SalviaDerives from the Latin word Salva meaning to save or heal. Referring to the healing properties of salvias.
microphyllaDerives from the Latin words micro = small, phylla = leaves,  meaning to have small leaves.

How to identify Salvia microphylla

Salvia microphylla shrub (Baby sage, little leaf sage, Grahams sage, Blackcurrant sage)

Plant

A very branched shrub with a round form and an upright to ascending habit, which tends to become woody. It is usually evergreen but can be deciduous in very cold winters.

It has small green leaves, topped with many short racemes of reddish-pink flowers.

The plant is very aromatic, with a fragrance similar to that of blackcurrant, hence the common name “Blackcurrant Sage”.

The shrub has an average height of 80 cm to 100cm / 2.6 to 3.2 ft and a width of 80 cm to 100cm / 2.6 to 3.2 ft.

Salvia microphylla stem (Baby sage, little leaf sage, Grahams sage, Blackcurrant sage)

Stem

The stems are upright to decumbent (spreading with slightly curving ends) and very branched. They are initially herbaceous and covered with short, dense hairs but become woody over time.

They are squared, with opposite leaves at each node and tufts of smaller leaves at the axils.

The flower stems are longer than the foliage stems, and the flowers are borne on terminal racemes.

Salvia microphylla leaf (Baby sage, little leaf sage, Grahams sage, Blackcurrant sage)

Leaf

The leaf is small, smooth and leathery with almost no hairs. Green on both surfaces, aromatic and a little sticky, releasing an essential oil with a blackcurrant fragrance when the weather is hot.

It is simple, with an ovate-oblong shape (becoming more chordate at the base) with an obtuse tip. It is serrate (sharp teeth along the margins), has pronounced veins and a short stalk.

The size is, on average, 1.5 – 7.2 cm / 0.6 – 2.8 in long and 0.4 – 3.2 cm / 0.1 – 1.2 in wide.

Salvia microphylla flower (Baby sage, little leaf sage, Grahams sage, Blackcurrant sage)

Flower

The inflorescence is a raceme which varies in height from 3.5 to 14 cm / 1.3 to 5.5 in, with several whorls composed of 2 to 4 flowers along the terminal part of the stem.

Flower colour can vary a lot according to its variety or cultivar. Bright reddish-pink is the most common colour, but other colours also exist, like pink, red, purple or white.

The corolla is tubular shaped and two-lipped, the upper lip has 2 lobes laterally compressed, forming a hood, and the lower lip has 3 lobes, with the middle lobe much larger and split at the end. The stamens are inserted under the hood of the corolla with the anthers sticking out. The pistil, which is taller, projects out from the top.

Each flower is held inside a purple-tinged calyx that is bell-shaped and 2-lipped with five triangular teeth, three on the upper lip and 2 on the lower one.

The blooms happen in the spring and fall, with some scattered blooms in the summer. The flowers barely live for a day, falling to the ground in the evening, but are replaced with new flowers the next day.

Quick tips to identify Baby Sage

How to identify Salvia microphylla (Baby sage) - Drought tolerant sage

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    What is the difference between Salvia microphylla and Salvia greggii ?

    Salvia microphylla and Salvia greggi are very similar and hybridise easily. The hybrid name is Salvia x jamensis.

    However, they can be distinguished by the following characteristics:

    • S. microphylla has serrated leaf margins, while S. greggi has smooth margins.
    • S. microphylla has pair of papilla (small projections) inside the corolla near its base, while S.greggi does not.

    Salvia microphylla Usage

    Ornamental

    The Baby Sage is a very showy shrub with bright pinkish-red flowers that catch one´s eye. It has year-round interest with repeated colourful blooms from Spring to Autumn and dense green foliage present in all seasons (except during very cold winters) and intensely aromatic on hot days.

    It can be used as a solitary plant or planted in mass. It can be planted in pots or borders. In rock or gravel gardens. Its spreading habit makes it a great ground cover.

    Due to its intense fragrance, it is also a good choice for aromatic gardens.

    It attracts insects and hummingbirds making it ideal for wildlife gardens.

    Medicinal

    Baby sage has been used in folk medicine as a treatment for fever and coughs.

    Research has demonstrated the antioxidant activity of the essential oil from Salvia microphylla and its neuroprotective effects.

    Culinary

    Baby sage leaves have a blackcurrant fragrance and are used to prepare herbal tea. In Mexico, this tea is used as a medicine, and the sage is called “Mirto de montes” (mountain myrtle).

    Biodiversity

    The flowers of this sage are a good source of nectar, attracting bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. They add to the biodiversity of your garden.

    Insect repellent

    Baby sage can act as an insect repellent due to its strong odour. It is a very useful plant to have in your vegetable garden, acting as a natural pesticide.

    Salvia microphylla Habitat

    Baby sage can be found in shrublands, grasslands, rocky slopes and mountains.

    How to care for Salvia microphylla

    Cold exposure

    This plant is moderately hardy, tolerating temperatures down to -8ºC (17ºF) as long as the soil is well drained. It usually does not tolerate frost, but some varieties can be frost-hardy. Cold and humid soil can be fatal to it.

    If your area has very cold winters and you have it planted in a pot, then it is best to keep it in a cold frame over the winter.

    Add a thick layer of mulch to shelter the roots from low temperatures and the foliage from the wet soil. Mulch should preferably be gravel to protect the leaves from rotting due to the humidity in other types of mulch.

    Sun exposure

    Needs full sun (at least 6 hours per day) to maintain a compact shape and to flower more abundantly.  

    It can tolerate some shade but becomes more floppy as the stems lose their firmness when deprived of sunlight.

    Soil

    It prefers moist but well-drained soils. It dislikes soggy soil, which makes it more exposed to fungal diseases. So avoid planting it in places where moisture is stagnant.

    The soil should be moderately fertile so it can flower more abundantly.
    It grows well in most types of soils: mildly acidic, neutral and mildly alkaline.

    Watering

    Baby sage is moderately drought tolerant and can go for some time without water (about 3 months of drought if the temperature is not too hot).

    If you want it to have more flowers, you can give it a deep watering when you see that the soil has dried out at the root level. But avoid overwatering, which will probably kill it. In particular, the combination of heat and humidity can lead to fungal disease.

    To preserve the soil´s moisture, you should add mulch around the root area of the plant. Gravel is the best option for mulching. 

    Pruning

    Pruning is essential to maintain the plant´s compact rounded shape and flowering. It should be done several times a year. A hard prune in early spring to maintain a compact form and give it some vigour. Then cut back the faded flowers regularly to encourage new blooms.

    Other Conditions

    Salvia microphylla will become leggy and lose its nice compact shape over the years. So, you should propagate it and replant a new sage every 4 or 5 years.

    The best season to plant is during Autumn so it will have all winter to develop its roots. In very cold areas, it is best to plant during the spring as long as there is available water throughout the summer to survive while developing its roots.

    Baby sage is slightly salt tolerant.

    How to propagate Salvia microphylla

    Baby sage can be propagated from seed in early spring, or from cuttings taken before or after flowering.

    A good online source for plant propagation techniques can be found at RHS propagation article.

    If you prefer books, I can recommend the following:

    • Creative propagation: a grower’s guide by Thompson, Peter,
    • RHS Propagating Plants: How to Create New Plants For Free by Alan Toogood, Royal Horticultural Society

    Other Salvias you may also like

    Sources

    Sources of information used for this article

    Internet

    Article from North Carolina Extension

    Article from Kew

    Vol XII from FloraIberica

    Books

    The New Book of Salvias by Clebsch, Betsy/ Barner, Carol D. (ILT)

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