Most people have heard of purple sage. Even as a native Pennsylvanian, I read Zane Grey’s Riders of the Purple Sage in my youth. However, when I first encountered Salvia dorrii, it was introduced to me as desert sage. I continue to call this plant desert sage, even though many others used the colloquial purple sage. To confuse matters even more, S dorrii is also commonly called tobacco sage and Dorr’s sage.
Desert sage is a highly variable plant found in Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada, Idaho, Utah and Arizona. Its habitat is sandy, rocky, or limestone soils on open, dry slopes, flats and foothills between 2,500 and 8,800 feet.
A low, mounded shrub growing to about 2.5 feet in height, desert sage has rough bark that peels off of the mature, woody branches. The opposite, oval or spoon-shaped leaves are grey-green and have smooth margins. The upper and lower blade surfaces are covered with short hairs. They are retained on the plants during the winter. A member of the Mint Family (Lamiaceae), desert sage leaves give off a strong minty aroma when crushed.
The inflorescence of this native, perennial is a spike-like series of clusters on a bare stalk surrounded by round, purplish green to rose bracts. The dark blue to purple or rose flowers are bilaterally symmetrical. The five petals are arranged in two lips – the upper lip is two-lobed and the lower lip has three lobes. The two stamens and single two-parted style protrude above the corolla. The two-celled ovary is superior.
Four seeds, thick-walled tan achenes, are produced by each desert sage flower.
Desert sage is valuable to pollinators. It is used as an ornamental and in range rejuvenation, especially on harsh, rocky sites. Decoctions and poultices of desert sage were used to treat colds and headaches. Smoking dried leaves, scenting steam baths and burning to keep away spirits and ghosts are other ethnobotanical uses of this plant. However, forage is not one of its attributes.
The genus name, Salvia, comes from the Latin “salveo” meaning “I am well”. Clarendon Herbert Dorr (1816 – 1887), a poet and inventor who collected desert sage near Virginia City NV in the mid-1800’s, is honored by the species designation.
These desert sage plants were growing along Modoc County Road 27 (near the first wash crossing the road) south of Cedarville CA in June.