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Weekly “What is it?”: Lyreleaf Sage

Lyreleaf sage can be identified by its bell-shaped lavender flowers and basal rosette of deep purple and green leaves. Photo credit: Carrie Stevenson, UF IFAS Extension

I am always on the lookout for interesting plants and animals any time I go outside. In the spring, of course, birds start hatching, wayward baby squirrels leave the nest, and wildflowers start to bloom. On a recent walk, I was struck by a delicate bluish-purple flower with a stunning array of deep purple leaves at its base.

Digging into my wildflower books and talking to our horticulture gurus, I learned the plant was a variety of Salvia called Lyreleaf sage (Saliva lyrata). I found it growing about a foot tall in the full sun of an open field, but it can also thrive in a wide variety of soil types (dry, moist, sandy, loam) and light conditions (sun, part shade, shade). Lyreleaf sage can also tolerate both drought and flooding, which makes it an idea candidate for a rain garden.

The delicate petals of the lyreleaf sage are engineering marvels of efficient pollen delivery. Photo credit: RW Smith via University of Texas Austin

Like other varieties of sage, the small perennial flowers are attractive to many beneficial pollinators like bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. The lower “lip” of the petal serves as the perfect landing pad for insects visiting individual plants. The flower’s ingenious lever mechanism is triggered when a pollinator lands on the petal, dropping stamens onto the pollinator and dousing it with pollen for transfer to the next flower. Being an evergreen, the plant also works well as a native groundcover. It tolerates mowing and can form a dense cover if provided adequate water. The plant reseeds annually and can bloom twice each year—in spring and often again in the fall.

The use of salvia species in traditional medicine has a long history—the genus name Salvia means “to save” or “to heal” in Latin. A member of the mint family, Lyreleaf sage is edible and young leaves have a minty taste. The leaves, blooms, and stems are edible, and can be brewed as a tea to help soothe sore throats. Another common name for the plant is “cancer weed”, as folk tradition involved grinding the plant into a poultice applied to the skin for curing warts, sores, wounds, and skin cancers. Please keep in mind, however, that the plant is not recognized by the modern medical community as a cancer treatment.