Wildflowers are beloved little treasures that have inspired poets, artists and storytellers from around the world and learning to recognize them and preserving their declining habitat is something all gardeners should aspire to.
Lyre leaf sage (Salvia lyrata) is a member of the Salvia genus that is a widespread wildflower/weed in the eastern half of North America and is winter hardy in zones 5 through 10 and even somewhat further north with protection. It has an interesting history in folk medicine and is a tough little garden plant that thrives in a number of conditions. Lyre leaf sage is a semi-evergreen that prefers sunny, open areas and tolerates damp to dry conditions when established. It does stand a little shade, but the blue color of the flowers will be more pronounced with more sun. Here in west Kentucky, they are often spotted on sunny hillsides and along creekbanks.
Late spring is when you can find this plant blooming in meadows, along roadsides and even in yards. It sends up a 1 to 2 foot blooming stalk on a familiar square-sided stem common in the Lamiaceae family (which includes mint) and produces blue to purplish flowers that salvia lovers are familiar with. These stalks grow from a basal rosette and the whorled leaves have a distinctive toothed appearance. It can tolerate a bit of afternoon shade, however, the color is best where it receives at least 8 hours of full sun. Once it is established, it is relatively drought tolerant, but does best when it receives at least an inch of water each month. Like most wildflowers, ordinary garden soil is sufficient when it comes to nutrients and there's no need for fertilizer, but a top dressing of compost each spring wouldn't be a bad idea. It will reseed and multiply best with regular moisture.
This is a native North American perennial and the basal foliage resembles the popular European groundcover Ajuga reptans, so it is a great choice for communities and HOA's that insist on native plants. There are even commercial cultivars with purple leaves available. Purple Knockout, Purple Volcano and Burgundy Bliss are for sale along with the species plant from a number of mail order sources. Just remember, if this plant is happy, it will happily reseed and for gardeners who prefer a place for everything and everything in its place, the seedlings might be a bit frustrating.
Salvia lyrata has long been used as a herbal or folk remedy and was even touted at one time as a cure for skin cancer. One of its common names, cancerweed, pays homage to that belief, although researchers have not found any cancer killing properties in the plant. It was more accurate to describe the fact that the plant can spread across the ground at an alarming pace, much like its namesake. The ground plant, made into a poultice, was also used as a wart remover by many different native tribes and early settlers. The roots were pounded into a salve to treat wounds as well. The tea made from roots and leaves was used to soothe sore throats and mouth infections. Tea made from the leaves has a pleasant, minty taste and contains carminative (gas relieving) diaphoretic (sweat inducing) and laxative properties. It was also used as a teething aid for babies by native peoples. It has the same medicinal properties as other salvias, however they are much weaker in the Salvia lyrata. The leaves are edible and were often added to spring salads or used as a potherb. The young leaves can be used fresh in salads, but when the plant sends up its flower stalk, cooking in stir frys and boiled tenderizes them better.
This plant is also attractive to butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. All enjoy the nectar and there are even a couple of insects that use it as a host plant, including the Gloriosa Flower Moth. If you are intending to use this plant as a host, make sure it is the species. Commercial cultivars have a different chemical make-up to the leaves and are not suitable for caterpillar forage. Our fragile pollinator population makes use of the nectar and pollen, so for that reason alone, I like to let them live in my yard. Yes, I have a yard, not a lawn and all sorts of little wildings are welcome there. They are blooming right now and make for a lovely show in my back yard.
These are tough little plants that can take light foot traffic once established and have an interesting history. Our winged friends love this North American native and it is a nice addition to your herb garden or butterfly garden. Just remember to avoid pesticides if this plant is to be used by wildlife or humans to keep us all healthy.
Images are my own or courtesy of PlantFiles.