Crimson pitcher sage (Salvia spathacea), also known as hummingbird sage, is native to the low elevations of the coastal ranges of California from Sonoma County to San Diego County. The plant is a perennial that grow up to three feet tall counting the flower stalk. The foliage portion makes up about half the height of a blooming plant. The plant is more or less evergreen except in the driest years. The quilted, arrowhead-shaped, light green leaves are fragrant. The stem carries many robust whorls of red flowers.
Crimson pitcher sage is recommended for Sunset zones 7-9 and 14-24. This corresponds to USDA zones 9-10, excluding desert regions. Plants prefer rich soil and partial shade. The species is drought tolerant but looks better with moderate water. It is tolerant of regular watering.
At least four cultivars exist:
- 'Avis Keedy' has light yellow flowers;
- 'Confetti' has yellow and red flowers on the same plant;
- 'Kawatre' is hardy to USDA zone 8 and has magenta flowers that age to orange-red; and
- 'Powerline Pink' has pink flowers and the foliage mass is three feet tall and the flower stalks extend three feet beyond that.
Plants can be propagated from seed and readily self-sow. They also spread by creeping rhizomes. They may become invasive where there is constant moisture.
The Chumash Indians, and probably other groups, used crimson pitcher sage as an herbal remedy. A decoction of the leaves was drunk or or used as a bath to cure pulmonary ailments and rheumatism. It was also used to cure illness caused by sorcery. Leaves were rubbed on the body of the sick person and he or she also drank a tea made of the leaves and he or she layed on a bed of crimson pitcher sage leaves. According to the belief, if the patient recovered, the sorcerer would then die.
Crimson pitcher sage is a small-to-medium sized perennial native California plant. It is attractive to hummingbirds. It is useful for dry shade under trees. All indications are that it is easy to grow. It deserves more attention from California gardeners and lovers of Salvias.