Betsy Clebsch, Native Salvias with Native Plant Partners

Today was the Betsy Clebsch class at Strybing. Ms. Clebsch brought a slide show featuring approximately 40 California native plants and gave a solid, two-hour talk peppered with audience Q&A to more than 30 amateur and professional gardeners.

Ms. Clebsch gardens at 3000' elevation (if I understood her correctly) in the coast ranges not far south of San Francisco. She lives next door to a rock quarry whose owner she has befriended and who provides her with small sedimetary rock--variably sized and sharp edged--that she incorporates heavily into her medium clay soil. For amendments, she favors mushroom compost and "chip-chop" i.e., chipper product. The resulting rocky soil is excellent for growing California native salvias, and she spoke at length on that subject.

She began with three named cultivars of my favorite salvia, S. spathacea (she spelt it with an extra letter e at the end): 'Kowatre', 'Powerline Pink', and 'Avis Keedy'. 'Avis Keedy' is the rare yellow-flowering form from Santa Barbara that I've mentioned on this blog before. 'Powerline Pink' must be the tallest flowering spathaceae; she said the inflorescences reach four-and-a-half feet! 'Kowatre' (ko-WA-tree) is a maroon-flowering selection made by Suncrest Nursery's Nevin Smith. She didn't talk about how ragged this species gets at the end of the season. My advice? Cut it to the ground, or keep it going with supplemental water.

She raved about annual Salvia columbariae. It took her years to get it established in her garden, but "now it takes care of itself". She admires this plant for its deeply divided green leaves. In the native habitat, S. columbariae might be only a few inches tall, but in gardens it can reach a few feet. (Btw, you can get seeds from Seedhunt in the links.)

She emphasized the necessity of cutting back all varieties of S. sonomensis after flowering to control woody growth at the base and keep the plant vigorous. She said she wrote in her book that 'John Farmer Bowers' does well in heavy clay, and right after the book came out, hers died. "So scratch that." She advised not letting 'Bees Bliss' get over 18" tall. While 'Dara's Choice' is taller than the species (up to 2 feet), 'Mrs. Beard' makes an effective groundcover.

Salvia leucophylla
comes from Southern California and Baja, but it grows like a native in the Bay Area where it's hardy down to 19 degrees F. Her favorite cultivar is Carol Bornstein's selection 'Amethyst Bluff'.

She talked about the well-known cultivars of S. clevelandii, 'Winnifred Gilman' and 'Allen Chickering', and pointed out that 'Gilman' is a true clevelandii while 'Chickering' is not, and noone has yet been able to determine its parentage. She also discussed the more obscure, bi-colored lavendar and white flowering 'Betsy Clebsch' and explained it's a difficult plant to grow and she's had a hard time with Betsy. She mentioned two other clevelandiis in passing, 'Aromas' and 'Pozo's Blue' and said it takes an expert to distinguish them from each other and from 'Allen Chickering'.

She was uncommonly enthusiastic about Salvia brandegei. I have it in my garden, but I know most native plant freaks don't get excited about it. First collected on Santa Rosa Island in 1888, this salvia's small, narrow green leaves with white undersides feels light in the garden as opposed to many other native salvias which feel heavy. She called attention to the lightly scalloped leaf margin which is something I'd noticed but never paid much attention to.

She praised the surprising wind tolerance of Salvia apiana's tall, rangy inflorescence and said this plant "belongs to the bees". She seemed unaffected by its smell (your blogger absolutely cannot tolerate it), but acknowledged that she once heard it described as "upstairs maid underarm". She asked everyone who grew this plant to please raise a hand, and hands went up from half the people in the room. Whatever.

She had pictures of spiny, prickly Salvia caraduacea, aka Thistle Salvia, but she's never tried growing it herself. I've noticed a lot of interest in growing native thistles lately. Speaking for myself, I know I'm content to let that gardening experience pass me by.

The last salvia she talked about was S. mellifera, Black Sage. These are exceptionally drought tolerant natives, especially 'Shirley's Creeper' and 'Terra Seca'.

Someone asked about Salvia pachyphylla. She's killed every pachyphylla she's ever been given but she encouraged us to try it, and recommended High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, NM as a source.

She said the best place in the world to see salvias is the salvia garden at Cabrillo College.

I don't want to write up everything she talked about, but I will mention a few more things...

She had highest praise for the five-feet-tall red inflorescences of Delphinium cardinale, seasonally available from Annie's Annuals. She said she was happy when she had one of these plants, but much happier when she had three.

She says the best fruiting manzanita is 'John Dourley' and she loves to use the tight young buds of Rhus ovata is flower arrangements.

She's had no problems growing Dendromecon hardfordii or Trichostema lanatum, and this is where I'll end by saying this testifies to the benefits of her rock-amended soil; those are both notoriously challenging plants in clayey Bay Area gardens.


Pam said...

I'm envious! I would love to hear Betsy Clebsch speak - salvias are a favorite, so thanks for sharing this. I need to check into a few that you've mentioned here - I'm not familiar with S. spathacea (geez, I've missed one?) - I'd love the yellow flowering form. Oh no, here comes another salvia order...

chuck b. said...

I think you ought to look in to Salvia pachyphylla (or report back if you already have)--did you see it in Fine Gardening? The others here are CA natives that might not enjoy your summer rain.

I wish my blog attracted more CA native gardeners, but I seem to be the only such person in the blog-o-sphere right now.

Michael said...

Hello from Humboldt County. I've been following your blog for a while and I just wanted to let you know that another california-native gardener is out here in the blogosphere.

It's true, your blog seems to be the only one with a strong CA native-focus. (I'm on a similar path, but my blog is just a baby and so is the garden.) So keep up with the native talk and photos. They are appreciated.


chuck b. said...

Michael, let's see your blog!