Plant Species of the Borrego Desert:
Lamiaceae: Salvia eremostachya, desert sage

Fig. 1. Salvia eremostachya. Left: Indian Canyon, 1 March 2018. Right: Rockhouse Canyon, 1 February 2009.
Click on the pictures for larger versions.
See also Fred Melgert's pictures of this species.

Table of Contents

Origin and Meaning of Name
Distinguishing Characteristics and Similar Species
Pictures of Young Plants, Mature Plants, and Dead Plants
Hybrid with Salvia vaseyi
Habitat, Distribution and Abundance

This page is mostly just a shell so far to hold pictures of its hybrid with S. vaseyi

Origin and Meaning of Name

The species was named and described by Jepson in his 1925 Manual of the Flowering Plants of California, p. 870. Indian Canyon, the one northwest of Borrego Springs near Collins Valley, is the type locality for this species, meaning that the name given by Jepson is defined by the specimen he collected from here. Thus even if later botanists find that what had been called this species actually consists of two or more taxa, the plants here will retain the name Salvia eremostachya, and the other plants will receive new names. It also means there is no quibbling about what the name is of the plants here!

Jepson collected it on 28 April 1920 on "Rocky canyon wall, northerly slopes", most likely from his tributary canyon #4, which is now called Deering Canyon, since his previous collection number was from that canyon. He described it as a "shrub 2 to 2 1/2 feet high", and drew the flower in his notebook.

Jepson makes no comments as to why he picked the species name.

Michael Charters gives the translation of the species epithet eremostachya as from eremos, "lonely," and stachys, "an ear of corn or other grain," and thus meaning "bearing a single spike". The prefix eremo is often also used to refer to the (lonely) desert, which is probably the origin of the common name desert sage.

This species was first collected by Jepson and Hall on 22 May 1901 in Upper Palm Canyon on their trip from Van de Venter Flat to Palm Springs, on the north side of Santa Rosa Mountain. I don't know why Jepson or Hall did not describe it as a new species at that time.

Distinguishing Characteristics and Similar Species

Pictures of Young Plants, Mature Plants, and Dead Plants

Mature Plant Pictures

Dead Plant Pictures

Hybrid with Salvia vaseyi

On 1 March 2018, while doing a survey of Indian Canyon, Walt Fidler spotted a Salvia plant that looked different to him. Up to that point, we had seen abundant S. vaseyi, and had just begun seeing plants of S. apiana. Either I had not noticed Walt's plant at all, since it was a bit distant from my route, or if I had seen it, simply thought it was another S. vaseyi.

When I went to look at Walt's plant, it looked similar to those plants of S. vaseyi for its overall gestalt, with long spicate inflorescences on a rounded shrub. I checked for awns on the calyces and found a few, and so initially thought this plant was S. vaseyi. I did think it was odd that I found so few awns, but I shrugged it off since the awns are somewhat deciduous.

Walt then pointed out the leaves were very different from those of S. vaseyi, and he was right! When I saw them, I immediately thought they were the leaves of S. eremostachya, since they had the strongly bumpy texture S. eremostachya shares with S. mellifera. But Walt had seen plants of S. eremostachya earlier that day before I arrived, and he strongly felt these leaves were different, with a somewhat different shape, as well as being somewhat longer and wider, with a slightly-different color. And since the inflorescence was totally different from the plants he had seen, we were very puzzled about what this plant was.

Walt then took us to see his plants of S. eremostachya, and I immediately knew that Walt's unusual plant was a hybrid between S. eremostachya and S. vaseyi. Walt's plant was down canyon from his population of S. eremostachya, so it seems likely pollen from those plants had made it down to at least one S. vaseyi flower.

McMinn, in An Illustrated Manual of California Shrubs, states that S. eremostachya hybridizes with both S. apiana and S. vaseyi, presumably from garden trials. Salvias are popular horticultural plants, and horticulturalists love to hybridize species to see what new forms they might produce.

Walt's hybrid plant has S. vaseyi as one parent due to some calyces having awns. If it were not for that characteristic, it might be difficult to know whether the other parent was S. apiana instead of S. vaseyi.

Epling discussed a number of hybrid salvias in his 1938 monograph. Walt's plant doesn't seem to fit Epling's report that the hybrid with S. apiana has leaves like those of S. leucophylla. But Walt's plant also doesn't seem to fit Epling's report that the hybrid with S. vaseyi has a non-elongate inflorescence. However, Epling observed only a single example of a hybrid with S. vaseyi, so it is possible the compactness of the inflorescence varies in individual hybrids. Oddly, Epling doesn't mention calyx awns in his single example. If I ever catch Walt's plant in flower I'll do a detailed comparison to Epling's descriptions of the two hybrids.

This is the first hybrid Salvia I have knowingly seen in 13 years of surveying the Borrego Desert. It is possible there have been hybrids of S. apiana and S. vaseyi in my surveys, but I suspect it is very difficult to pick them out since those two species are so similar. Maybe I better pay attention to the S. apiana plants with very compact inflorescences to see if any calyces are awned! However, this is complicated by the Jepson Manual stating that some calyces of S. apiana are short awned.

In coastal areas, I've come across F1 hybrids of S. apiana and S. mellifera in five or ten locations where both parents are found. Those hybrids are immediately obvious when you see them, since they have leaves and inflorescences intermediate between these two quite-different species, just like in this hybrid between S. eremostachya and S. vaseyi.

Fig. 2 shows the intermediate character of this hybrid plant in its form, leaves, and inflorescence.

S. eremostachyaS. eremostachya X S. vaseyiS. vaseyi
Fig. 2. Left: S. eremostachya. Middle: the hybrid of S. eremostachya and S. vaseyi. Right: S. vaseyi.
Note the intermediacy of the hybrid in overall gestalt (top); in leaf color and shape (middle); and in its inflorescence (bottom).
Click on the pictures for larger versions.

Habitat, Distribution and Abundance

S. eremostachya is one of the rarer species in California, CNPS rank 4.3, of "limited distribution" and "not very endangered". It is neither state nor federal listed.

This species is mostly found along the lower part of SR74, from Pinyon Pines to near Palm Desert; in the Coyote Creek drainage from the Turkey Track area (White Wash, Tule Creek) to Collins Valley; and the Indian Canyon area southwest of Collins Valley.

This species is also found in northern Baja California.

Fig. 3 gives the voucher distribution of this species in California and in its whole range including Baja California.

Fig. 3. Top: Voucher distribution of S. eremostachya from a Consortium of California Herbaria search on 3 March 2018. Note that many older vouchers have only vague descriptions and thus cannot be accurately georeferenced, such as the one plotted at Thermal which has a locality of just "Palm Springs". That voucher was mostly likely taken from the SR74 area above Palm Desert. Bottom: Voucher distribution from SEINet on 3 March 2018.


Voucher data provided by the participants of the Consortium of California Herbaria (

I thank Aaron Schusteff for bringing my attention to the extensive discussion of Salvia hybrids in Epling.

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Copyright © 2018 by Tom Chester.
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Updated 19 March 2018.