When I was a child, I liked the soft drink Big Red. Shockingly red and overly sweet, Big Red is a cream soda which originated in Waco, Texas and was marketed throughout the southern half of Texas, which included my native hometown of Corpus Christi in South Texas and my current hometown of Austin in Central Texas. Fast forward multiple decades, add some (?) maturity, a bit of culinary discernment, and a passion for gardening, and I discovered another Texas Big Red that I love even more: the beautiful perennial, Big Red sage, Salvia pentstemonoides.
I became familiar with Big Red sage when I worked for a handful of years at Zilker Botanical Gardens (ZBG) a couple of handfuls of years ago. The objects of my admiration grew in a full-sun garden which bordered the main parking lot and was part of a troupe of other tough, native plants. Big Red sage grew from lush, evergreen rosettes, sending bloom spikes upwards to three feet tall in May. Rich red blooms decorated the bloom stalks for the summer months. As I tended the gardens and observed the spring and summer bloom cycles, I liked the Big Red sage so much that I purchased several for myself from Barton Springs Nursery.
I planted the Big Reds in my back garden, adjacent to my pond where they were very happy for 5 or 6 years. Because my back garden is shadier than the garden I tended at ZBG, the stalks leaned a bit, rather than growing in the erect fashion as preferred, but the plants bloomed well for several years, adding pops of deep magenta along an elegant bloom stalk throughout the summers. Hummingbirds and several species of carpenter bees were regular visitors, enjoying nectar enclosed within the blooms.
Once the bloom season was over, I’d prune the stalks to their rosette, leaving an evergreen groundcover, in its resting state, awaiting the next bloom season.
Over the past few years, I’ve moved all four plants to my front garden as they experienced increasing shade and declining blooms where they first lived. Big Red sage is a plant that should bloom and for as much and as long as possible. For that, it needs a good dose of sunshine.
Where they now sit along the driveway and near the street, they receive blasting west sun and bloom well in their sweet spot. I moved the Big Reds in two different autumns and all transplanted easily, flowering without missing a beat the first springs after their migrations. These native perennials don’t require much water; this year, I’ve only watered twice.
The color of the flowers is interesting: early morning sees the blooms in a deep purple/ red hue; the hours following, a pinking-up occurs, though the blooms remain a definite rich red.
Hummingbirds visit the Big Reds, but the most common visitors are the Southern Carpenter bees and the Horsefly-like Carpenter bees. Mostly, these bees nectar steal, but presumably–and hopefully–there’s some pollen gathering during those feedings, owing to the carpenter bees’ size and pollen gathering hairs. That said, my Big Reds have yet to seed out and I’d love to have some baby Big Reds. It might be that pollination is limited or that I mulch too thickly for fallen seeds to take root.
I like the way the bee holds on to the bloom itself; a bee-to-flower hug.
Aside from its beauty in the garden and value for pollinators, the Big Red sage has an interesting history. It is endemic only to Central Texas, not occurring naturally anywhere else. It was discovered in the mid-1800s and by the mid-1940s was believed extinct. But in the mid-1980s several different populations of Big Red sage were discovered and several groups of Big Reds have been found since, though some established colonies have disappeared. According to the Native Plant Society of Texas, the plant’s natural range was originally a “ten county” region around Kendall County; Kendall County now boasts about 60% of the surviving natural colonies.
Barton Spring Nursery in Austin carries the plant (mine were in one-gallon pots) and Native American Seeds has carried the seeds in the past, though with a quick look-see of their 2020 spring catalog, I didn’t spy any, but it’s an interesting catalog to peruse nonetheless. I recall that I’ve seen Big Red sage listed in the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center bi-annual plant sales.
For more about Big Red sage, check out these two articles from the Native Plant Society of Texas: On the trail of big red sage and New stand of big red sage found