Lavender shrubs are so common in Mediterranean climates that any plant with purplish flowers is often assumed to be lavender. But, in fact, many native plants with purplish flowers need even less maintenance and water than lavender, which is not native to California.
Some purplish native bee-attractors that are easier to maintain and require less water than lavender include woolly blue curls, Cleveland sage and Sonoma sage.
The purplish plant shown in my column on Town Mouse’s front garden last month was woolly blue curls, whose strong, sweet leaf fragrance entices many native-plant novices to plant it. But even M. Nevin Smith, horticulturist at Suncrest Nurseries and author of the book “Native Treasures” (University of California Press, 2006), finds woolly blue curls temperamental. He says it may take several tries to get a plant to maturity. It needs full sun, excellent drainage and no summer water to occasional water.
Aside from the lovely aroma, woolly blue curls sports colors more vivid than common lavender. Bright-green leaves, as thin as rosemary leaves, contrast with its furry foot-long inflorescence. The two-toned flowers range from deep purple to magenta, in combinations ranging from deep and medium purple to rosy magenta and white. Its gracefully arching stems are covered in flowers from late spring into fall, and bloom sporadically most of the year. And woolly blue curls is so different and interesting that, if you value uncommon plants, it will set your garden apart. It’s the ideal size for a garden, approximately 3-5 feet high and a little wider. Trim back after its main blooming cycle to keep it compact.
Another native whose aromatic foliage persuades people to plant it is Cleveland sage, most commonly grown as hybrids such as Allen Chickering or Winnifred Gilman. They grow fast and are covered in whorls of medium to dark lavender flowers for a couple of months from late spring to midsummer. Depending on the cultivar, the leaves can range from gray-green to shades of gray or green.
Choose a sunny location and plant during the rainy season on a slope or mound to provide good drainage, then provide occasional water during the first dry season or two until the roots are established.
Be sure to provide enough room for the mature size, typically 5-6 feet wide for most cultivars. After a bloom cycle, cut back hard to encourage a neater appearance and more flowers.
Dissatisfied with the way lavender looked in the summer, the owner of a garden on the Going Native Garden Tour replaced it on a dry, sunny front-yard slope with Dara’s Choice sage, one of the Sonoma sage hybrids. This low-growing shrub maintains a neat appearance as it cascades downhill, keeping the soil from eroding and covering the slope with soft-green to gray-green leaves, topped by stalks with lavender flowers. It grows fast, spreading at least 4-6 feet wide, tolerates part shade and needs little or no water once established.