Russian Sage and Yarrow are Battlefield Tough

Master gardener Maureen Gilmer shares tips for combining summer flowering perennials.

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Monrovia's fern leaf yarrow stands on upright stems. (Photos courtesy of Maureen Gilmer)

"It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog." Mark Twain knew a ferocious small dog may indeed overwhelm a larger opponent. Just ask any Jack Russell terrier owner, and you'll get confirmation.

To give yourself a great start with perennial gardening this year, and to add zest and beauty to your landscape, choose plants wisely. Many common varieties have noted weaknesses such as disease, inability to withstand heat or drought or a vulnerability to certain pests. But those with naturally resilient genes are guaranteed to put up a hell of a fight.

Russian sage, for example, bears the dogged strength of those armies that defeated Hitler at Stalingrad during the brutal winter of 1942 to 43. This shrubby blue flowering Perovskia atriplicifolia is among the many species collected from the Siberian steppes and developed in botanical gardens of St. Petersburg. This is a bold and fast grower that is cold-tolerant to Zone 4, which is about 25 degrees F. below zero. It will thrive equally well in the hot dry summers of California, failing to wither with high temperatures in exposed locations. Such a range of tolerance is truly rare and marks this plant as one created with a very big fight.

Monrovia's blue Little Spire Russian sage.
Monrovia's Coronation Gold fern leaf yarrow blossoms.

My experience with Russian sage proved it shares a marked tolerance for poorer fertility soils. In my case it grew in a very gravelly soil mix in elevated dry stone planters where water lingers only briefly. Such low fertility and a lack of residual moisture in the root zone is tolerated by only a few western natives and Mediterranean species.

This plant also does quite well on sloping ground for the same reason, providing an opportunity for perennial border beauty on dryish banks. Its willingness to grow in such a wide variety of conditions makes this a perfect plant for rural and suburban landscapes. It's ideal for easing the transition from cultivated garden to the wild land beyond.

And then there's yarrow, an aromatic herb that serves as a symbol of the ancient Roman Empire and its expansion over much of Europe, Britain, northern Africa, Persia and Asia Minor. Its foliage served as a coagulant carried into battle first by Greeks and later Romans. Although the armies that once occupied these lands are long gone, yarrow remains as a reminder of Rome's former military might.

Genus Achillea, includes the foot-tall millefolium hybrids with their varying colors and fine textured leaves. But these don't hold a candle to big bold, Achillea filipendulina. This bold upright beauty nearly as large as Russian sage blossoms in clear bright yellow. The flower heads are flattish on top and excellent for cut flowers, which are often used dried as they hold their color. The hardiness of this wider leaf species known as fern-leaf yarrow is remarkable, to Zone 2 or 3, depending on the reference.

Like most herbs, Achillea is a willing grower. It thrives in very much the same conditions as Russian sage, preferring full sun and very good drainage. This big golden yarrow doesn't ask for much water or fertilizer, but it will mature faster with gentle nurture. It is tolerance of drought, and sloping sites make it a favorite component of high-profile erosion control plantings.

Improvements on the species have produced some vigorous cultivars with brighter or larger flowers. Look for 'Coronation Gold', 'Cloth of Gold' and the slightly shorter and paler 'Moonshine.'

These two plants share a peace treaty because they are both equally powerful in any garden. The combination of both summer flowering perennials together produce a most striking result, playing on naturally complementary colors.

So let the Greek, Roman and Russian armies into your garden this year. Find out just how much fight is in this dogged sage and yarrow, as you put them to the tests of heat and cold and drought. By summer you'll discover it's not a battlefield out there at all, but beautiful Elysian fields of peaceful blue and gold.

(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. For more information, visit www.moplants.com or www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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