|Salvia mellifera Black Sage|
Salvia Mellifera, Black Sage. Salvia comes from the Latin salveo, “to save” which refers to the medicinal uses of many salvias. In the case of Black Sage, components in the plant’s volatile oils are antimicrobial against gram positive bacteria. Mellifera means “honey bearing”. Nectar gathering bees utilize this plant and it is one of the best honey plants along the California coast.
Black sage grows between sea level and 1200 meters. It is found in both the soft (coastal scrub) and hard chaparral. It is a perennial evergreen shrub with very aromatic foliage. There are glandular hairs found all over the plant. Leaves are between 2/5 – 7 cm (1 – 3 inches) long. Black sage blooms February – July. The pale blue-lavender flowers are found in whorls or ball-like clusters spaced out around the stem. These whorls remain on the stems after the blooming season. They darken as they age and give “black sage” its common name. Pollinators are solitary bees.
Black sage may be semi deciduous with leaves dropping in reaction to short days (low photo period) and not stress from drought. It needs about 15” of rainfall. Plants in areas below this rainfall may get additional water from fog drip. It is shallow rooted and able to grow in a variety of soil types.
Seeds are brown, inconspicuous nutlets (single seeded fruits) in groups of four. These are disbursed by gravity and also by ants. Germination rates increase after exposure to either light or components of fire (charred wood, smoke and Potassium Nitrate. Seedlings are found in the clearings between adult shrubs, especially in the first couple of years after a fire. Plants take two years to mature.
Black sage is used extensively in native landscape gardening, restoration and erosion control. It is used in re-vegetation projects because of its resistance to drought, rapid growth rate and spreading habitat.
Plants provide both habitat and food for wildlife. As with other salvia species, the seeds of Black Sage are a staple food for numerous birds and small mammals. It is also an important butterfly and hummingbird plant.
Along with many coastal sage scrub species, black sage is susceptible to air pollution damage from sulfur dioxide and ozone. In some areas of southern California, it is used as a biological monitor of air pollution.