Perovskia atriplicifolia, (pronounced: / /; commonly called Russian sage), is a purple-blue flowering herbaceous perennial plant and subshrub that is native to southwestern and central Asia. The genus, Perovskia, was named in honor of the Russian general Vasily Perovsky, who introduced the species to Western gardeners in the mid-19th century. The specific epithet, atriplicifolia, refers to the plant's resemblance to Atriplex, also known as saltbush.
Despite its common name, Perovskia atriplicifolia is "neither Russian nor sage". It does not belong to the same genus as the members of Salvia commonly called "sage", but its intense fragrance is similar to some of the true sages. In its native habitat, P. atriplicifolia 's flowers are eaten, and the leaves are smoked for their euphoric properties. In Pakistan and Balochistan it is used to treat dysentery, and has a long history of use in Eurasian herbalism as a fever reducer. It might have been used for this purpose by Perovski's soldiers. When crushed, its flowers yield a blue colorant that is used in textiles, cosmetics, and culinary arts. In Russia, P. atriplicifolia is sometimes used to flavor a vodka-based cocktail. It has been shown to contain essential oils that function as an effective biopesticide against the insect species Tropidion castaneum and Camponotus maculatus.
Perovskia atriplicifolia averages .61 to 1.22 meters (2 ft 0 in to 4 ft 0 in) tall, but sometimes grows to 1.5 meters (4 ft 11 in). Its silvery-green leaves are finely-dissected and intensely aromatic when crushed. The stem is square and rigid, and its blue or lavender flowers, which bloom from July to October, are two-lipped, tubular, and tiered in branched, terminal panicles reaching 300 to 380 millimetres (12 to 15 in) long. P. atriplicifolia is the latest blooming and the tallest member of the sun-loving plant species. The most common cultivar is 'Blue Spire'; others include 'Longin', 'Little Spire', and 'Filigran'.
Botanical scholars, including William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll, have praised Perovskia atriplicifolia for its usefulness in gardens and landscaping. Its fine texture makes it a good vertical garden plant, and its stem's silvery colors are especially striking during winter months. It is most commonly used as an accent in island beds and naturalized areas, but also as a filler or privacy barrier. It is particularly well-suited along the borders of gardens or landscaping features, and is appreciated for its resistance to leaf pests, disease, deer, and rabbit. The drought-tolerant species is also valued for its ability to attract birds, bees, and butterflies. Reasonably cold-tolerant, its hardiness allows it to grow in the western, southwestern, and northwestern United States, as well as Ontario, Canada. Noted for its good foliage, it does well in meadows and steppes. Robinson described is as being "worth a place in the choicest garden for its graceful habit and long season of beauty."
Taxonomy and phylogeny
Perovskia atriplicifolia was described by George Bentham in 1848, based on a specimen collected by William Griffith in Afghanistan, now preserved at the Kew Gardens herbarium as the species's holotype. The specific epithet atriplicifolia means "with leaves like Atriplex, referring to its similarity to saltbush. Commonly known as Russian sage, P. atriplicifolia it is neither native to Russia nor a member of Salvia, the genus generally referred to as sage.
|Cladogram showing the phylogeny and relationships of Perovskia atriplicifolia within part of Lamiaceae|
Within the Lamiaceae, the large genus Salvia had long been believed monophyletic, based on the structure of its stamina. Several smaller genera, including Dorystaechas, Perovskia, and Meriandra were also included in tribe Mentheae, but were thought more distantly related. In 2004, a molecular phylogenetics study based on two cpDNA genes (rbcL and trnL-F) demonstrated that Salvia was not monophyletic, but comprises three identifiable clades. Clade I is more closely related to Perovskia than to other members of Salvia.
Perovskia atriplicifolia has been the subject of subsequent studies seeking to clarify the relationships within Mentheae. Further research combined palynological analysis of pollen grains with rbcL sequencing to provide additional support for the relationship between Perovskia and Salvia Clade I. It also distinguished between P. atriplicifolia and P. abrotanoides, while confirming their close relationship. A subsequent multigene study (four cpDNA markers and two nrDNA markers) redrew parts of the Mentheae cladogram, making Rosmarinus a sister group to Perovskia.
Several cultivars of Perovskia atriplicifolia have been developed. They are primarily distinguished by the height of mature plants and the depth of the leaf-margin incisions. Many of these cultivars, especially those with deeply-incised leaves, may actually be hybrids of P. atriplicifolia and P. abrotanoides. In that context, some may be referred to by the hybrid name P. ×hybrida.
The most common cultivar, 'Blue Spire', is among those suspected of being a hybrid. It was selected from German plantings by United Kingdom-based Notcutts Nurseries, and first exhibited in 1961. 'Blue Spire' grows to approximately 1.2 meters (3 ft 11 in), and has large, darker blue flowers. In 1993, it received the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.
'Filigran' reaches a height of 1.2 to 1.3 meters (3 ft 11 in to 4 ft 3 in); this tall, sturdy cultivar's name is German for filigree in reference to its lacy, fern-like foliage. 'Little Spire' is shorter, with a mature height of only 0.6 meters (2 ft 0 in). 'Longin' is similar in height to 'Blue Spire' but more upright. Allan Armitage established the late-flowering cultivar 'Mystery of Knightshayes' from a plant at Knightshayes Court. Other cultivars include 'Blue Haze', 'Blue Mist', 'Hybrida' (also called 'Superba'), 'Lace', 'Lisslit', 'Rocketman', and 'WALPPB'.
Perovskia atriplicifolia is a deciduous perennial subshrub with an erect to spreading habit. Superficially, it resembles a much larger version of lavender. Multiple branches arise from a shared rootstalk, growing to a height of 0.5–1.2 m (1 ft 8 in–3 ft 11 in), with occasional specimens reaching 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in). The mature plant may be 0.6–1.2 m (2 ft 0 in–3 ft 11 in) across. The rigid stems are square in cross-section, and are covered by a indumentum formed by stellate trichomes and oil droplets. Especially during autumn, these hairs give the stems a silvery appearance.
The greyish-green leaves are arranged in opposite pairs, and attached to the stems by a short petiole. Their overall shape is oblate or lanceolate, generally 3–5 cm (1.2–2.0 in) long and 0.8–2 cm (0.31–0.79 in) wide, although narrower in some populations. They are pinnatipartite, with a deeply incised leaf margin that may be either wavy or sharp-toothed; even within a single community of P. atriplicifolia, there can be considerable variation in the details of leaf shape. Leaves near the top of branches may merge into bracts. The foliage is aromatic, especially when crushed, with a fragrance described as sage-like, a blend of sage and lavender, or like turpentine.
The flowering season of P. atriplicifolia can be as long as June through October, although populations in some parts of its range, such as China, may bloom in a much more restricted period. The inflorescence is a showy panicle, 300–380 millimetres (12–15 in) long, with many branches. Each of these branches is a raceme, with the individual flowers arranged in pairs called verticillasters. Each flower's calyx is purple, densely covered in white or purple hairs, and about 4 mm long. The corolla is tube-shaped, formed from a four-lobed upper lip and a slightly shorter lower lip; the blue or violet blue petals are about 1 cm long. The style has been reported in both an exserted—extending beyond the flower's tube—form and one contained within the flower; all known examples of P. atriplicifolia in cultivation have exserted styles. Gardening author Neil Soderstrom describes the appearance of the flowers from a distance as "like a fine haze or fog".
Nine species of Perovskia are recognized. P. abrotanoides shares much of the range of P. atriplicifolia, but is distinguished by its bipinnate leaves. Hybrids between these two species may occur naturally. Restricted to Turkestan in its native range, P. scrophularifolia is less upright; some forms have white flowers. The flowers of P. scabiosifolia are yellow.
Distribution, habitat, and ecology
Widely distributed across Asia in its native range, Perovskia atriplicifolia grows in western China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, and parts of eastern Europe. It is found in steppes and on hillsides, and grows at higher elevations in mountainous regions, including the Himalayas. It has been recorded at 10,000 ft (3,000 m) of altitude in the Karakoram. In Pakistan's Quetta district, it is often found is association with the grass Chrysopogon aucheri, and may serve as an indicator species for soils with low calcium carbonate and chloride availability. The harsh habitats preferred by P. atriplicifolia are comparable to the sagebrush steppe of North America.
In parts of its range, such as the Harboi, these steppe ecosystems are employed as rangeland for grazing animals such as sheep and goats. Although this forage is generally of poor nutritional quality, P. atriplicifolia can serve as an important source of phosporous and zinc.
Vasily Perovsky led a force of the Imperial Russian Army into Afghanistan during the winter of 1837, where it is likely that he encountered Perovskia atriplicifolia. Perovsky introduced the plant to Western gardeners in the mid-1800s, and it has been activately cultivated since that time. The Royal Horticultral Society records the establishment of cultivars beginning with P. 'Hybrida', selected at a Hampshire nursery in the 1930s.
Perovskia atriplicifolia is a perennial plant that prefers full sun. Attempts to grow it in partial sun will greatly increase its natural tendency to sprawl or flop, particularly late in the growing season. Flopping is controlled by pinching the plant when it reaches .3 meters (1 ft 0 in) tall. Reasonably cold-tolerant, they thrive in United States Department of Agriculture hardiness zones five through nine. This allows it to grow in the western, southwestern, and northwestern United States. It has also been shown to tolerate the climate of Ontario, Canada. Noted for its good foliage, P. atriplicifolia does well in meadows and steppes. With a deep-feeding taproot, the plant is especially drought-tolerant. This tolerance makes it a popular choice for xeriscaping, particularly in the intermountain West. In the colder regions of zone five, the plant will die down to the ground during winter, but rejuvenate in the spring. In the coldest areas of the north, landscapers and gardeners cover it in straw or evergreen boughs during the winter. P. atriplicifolia can survive the winter in zone four, but not without considerable protection from the cold.
Perovskia atriplicifolia is resistant to leaf pests, disease, deer, and rabbits. It does well in average to medium or dry soil that is well-drained. It thrives in sandy, chalky, and loam soils, with a pH ranging from acidic to alkaline and neutral. The plant will grow in heavy clay soils if it has proper drainage, but cold and damp conditions will damage its roots. Because it prefers average or poor, but well-drained soil, fertilizer is rarely used and overwatering strongly discouraged. Excessive mulching and overwatering will result in quick decline.  Flowers will bloom only on new growth, so hard pruning is required. Pruning also helps to stop its growth from becoming limp, especially when young; plants are trimmed during spring to approximately .61 meters (2 ft 0 in) to encourage new growth. New plantings are watered regularly until they are well-established, which is usually by the end of the second growing season.
When properly groomed, Perovskia atriplicifolia 's stems survive throughout the fall and winter months, and when grown in full sun, it will adapt to salty conditions near oceans or seas. Propagation is facilitated by hardwood cuttings taken during the month of July. Because P. atriplicifolia 's woody crown is resistant to division, cuttings are taken from shoots near the base. They are typically planted in an even mix of peat and sand. They are slow to propagate and are generally 76 to 102 millimetres (3.0 to 4.0 in) long. Specimens with bare roots are usually planted in early spring, but potted ones are often planted as late as thirty days before the first hard frost. Seed germination requires a cold treatment of approximately 30 days, but can take up to 160 days.
Popular landscaping authors, including Gertrude Jekyll and Russell Page, have praised Peroskia atriplicifolia for its usefulness in gardens and landscaping features. Its "see-through" quality makes it a great choice for borders. Gardeners value its ability to attract bees and butterflies. Because it tends to flop and sprawl, it is often planted alongside a strong-standing accompaniment, which it will drape itself around for support. Due to its ability to spread quickly, gardeners typically avoid planting P. atriplicifolia near wild lands. It is notable for its true-blue flowers, a rarity in nature, that bloom late in the season. Following its introduction to the United Kingdom in 1904, the noted Irish gardener and author, William Robinson, was immediately taken with the plant, which he described as being "worth a place in the choicest garden for its graceful habit and long season of beauty." It gained widespread popularity by the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Perovskia atriplicifolia has a fine texture that makes it a good vertical garden feature, and its silvery colors are especially striking during winter months. The species is low maintenance, attracts birds, and makes an effective privacy barrier. It also does well in containers. The plant is most commonly used as accent feature, but it is also used as a filler, or in island beds and naturalized areas. It is a popular choice for herb gardens. Experts recommend planting P. atriplicifolia in groups of three. In 1995, it earned the Perennial Plant Association's Plant of the Year award.
Perovskia atriplicifolia has a long history of use in traditional medicine, especially as an antipyretic. It has also been employed as an antiparasitic and analgesic in Tibet, and smoked elsewhere as a euphoriant. In Balochistan, Pakistan, a decoction of the plant's leaves and flowers has been considered an anti-diabetic medication and a treatment for dysentary. Because of this extensive ethnomedical tradition, the phytochemistry of P. atriplicifolia has been the topic of several studies. Analysis of the plant's essential oil has identified over a dozen compounds, of which the most prevalent are camphor, limonene, α-globulol, trans-caryophyllene, and α-humulene. Other previously known compounds that are constituents of this oil include thujone, camphene, α-pinene and γ-cadinene. Several novel molecules have also been isolated from P. atriplicifolia, including a pair of triterpenes, atricin A and B, similar to oleanane, and the terpenoid perovskatone. The oil can function as a biopesticide, especially regarding the insect species Tropidion castaneum and Camponotus maculatus. Derivatives of P. atriplicifolia have displayed antimicrobial properties in vitro; research has focused on potential inhibitory effects on the hepatitis B virus. Interaction with opioid and cannabinoid receptors has been proposed as the mechanism of traditionally reported analgesic effects.
In addition to its use in folk medicine, P. atriplicifolia is sometimes used in Russia to flavor a vodka-based cocktail. Its flowers are eaten in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, including Kashmir, adding a sweet flavor to salads; they can also be crushed to yield a blue colorant that can be employed in cosmetics or as a textile dye. This species is also capable of phytoremediation of arid soil contaminated with toxic heavy metals.
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