Phlomis Fruticosa - Jerusalem Sage
By Sara Malone, Master Gardener
With this year's meager rain behind us, I find myself focusing more and more on plants that provide long-term garden architecture and interest and are not water-hogs. While many California natives and Mediterranean flora are drought tolerant, most of the natives are not summer-blooming, and most of the common Mediterraneans are not garden 'anchors' - they are not large enough or attractive enough year-round for that purpose. This is why I find myself loving my Phlomis fruticosa.
This low-water shrub hails from Turkey and Syria, has slightly glaucus, fuzzy leaves that are heart-shaped at the base, and sunny yellow flowers. The shrub is just coming into bloom at the end of April/beginning of May in Sonoma County. The flowers are arranged in whorls, with several flowers on one vertical stalk, arranged one on top of the other. A Phlomis in bloom is a dramatic sight indeed, as the arrangement of the flowers and the contrast between the yellow blooms and the blue-green foliage is arresting. When friends visit my garden in May and June, the Phlomis tends to attract more attention than the roses! The flowers also attract the attention of bees and butterflies, making it a good habitat plant. The books say that Phlomis fruticosa should reach a size of about 3-4' by 3-4'; although some of mine are larger. You can plant them on 2-3' centers for an impressive mass planting. Phlomis prefers full sun and may get leggy and droopy if it gets too much shade.
The flowers last throughout much of the summer, and high heat does not faze it a bit. The flower stalks and seed heads are ornamental when dry and provide winter interest and food for birds. I have one outside my window and I love to watch the birds perch on the large leaves and pick at the seed heads all winter long. All that the shrub requires in the way of cleaning up is to cut off the spent flower stalks in February or March.
Phlomis combines well with ornamental grasses, lavender, salvia - especially those with blue flowers - and other Mediterraneans, and other drought-tolerant perennials. It is truly stunning if planted near shrubs with chartreuse foliage such as Spirea 'Lime Mound' or Abelia species variegata, which accent the yellow flowers and provide lovely contrast to the blue-green leaves.
Phlomis is available from many nurseries, such as Sonoma Mission Gardens in Sonoma and Emerisa Gardens in Santa Rosa, where you can see it in their demonstration garden, dramatically planted between Spirea and Abelia as noted above.