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Mystery Plant: Nettle-leaf sage

Today’s Mystery Plant is “Nettle-leaf sage,” Salvia urticifolia.
Today’s Mystery Plant is “Nettle-leaf sage,” Salvia urticifolia. University of South Carolina

“Here’s flowers for you;

Hot lavender, mints, savoury, marjoram …”

— William Shakespeare, “A Winter’s Tale,” Act 4, Scene 4

Shakespeare was obviously fond of flowers. One of his favorite plant families was the mint family … I think it’s my favorite family, too.

The four plants mentioned by Perdita in Shakespeare’s story are aromatic herbs, which we classify as members of the mint family, or Lamiaceae. There are many additional members. All of these species groups, or genera, share a number of features, including a square (or at least squarish) stem, and opposite leaves (two together at a single node).

The flowers are frequently arranged in apparent whorls or rings along the upper part of the stem, and the petals are always fused together. Most members of the family have a corolla featuring an upper and a lower lip, the latter structure sometimes affording a good landing platform for visiting bees. A single flower will contain either two or four stamens, depending on the genus. Each flower is capable of producing four dry, one-seeded nutlets.

The foliage is frequently pungent and stinky, or pleasantly aromatic; most of these smells come from volatile oils produced by tiny glands on the foliage and/or stems. Of course, some members of this famous plant family don’t have much of a smell. And although this family offers a number of beautiful wildflowers, some of the species are aggravating weeds … maybe you’ve heard of “Florida betony”, Stachys floridana.

Many gardeners will correctly recognize today’s Mystery Plant — “Nettle-leaf sage,” Salvia urticifolia — as a species of sage, in the genus Salvia. This is probably the largest genus within the mint family, with perhaps over 800 species found world-wide. (Except for Australia.)

The ancient Romans valued various species of Salvia as important medicinal herbs, in addition to the culinary usefulness of some. In fact, the name Salvia comes from the Latin verb meaning “to heal.” The genus is highly valued for gardens: corollas range among different species from some of the bluest of blues to white, pink, peach, violet, and brilliant red.

Now our Mystery Plant is a Southeastern sage, barely reaching north into Pennsylvania, and just reaching northern Florida. It stretches west through the Appalachians into Kentucky and Tennessee, but it is not particularly common anywhere. It’s a perennial, and is fond of dry forests of the Piedmont and Mountains, often in rocky places.

Some evidence suggests that it is especially happy over limestone or chemically similar rock types. Its corolla tends to be bright sky-blue, with two white blotches on the lower lip. Its leaves are coarsely toothed, with tissue of the blade stretching down either side of the leaf stalk. These leaves resemble, somewhat, those of a stinging nettle.

When you try to distinguish this plant from a nettle, check out the flowers, and you won’t be fooled … you’ll be sage.

EDITOR’S NOTE — John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit http://herbarium.biol.sc.edu// or call 803-777-8196, or email nelson@sc.edu.

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