In Celebration of Salvias
Some serious gardeners talk about going through their “salvia stage of life” as if it were a rite of passage with a definite beginning and end. Counting myself as a serious gardener, I don’t recall when I entered my salvia stage of life. I just know I’m still in it and don’t plan to leave it anytime soon. Around mid-May, I rejoice when the vivid colors of early blooming salvias announce the transition from spring to summer. I depend on the drought-tolerant, summer-blooming salvias to add excitement and pizzazz to the mid-season border. And I am reluctant to bid farewell to the magnificent fall-blooming varieties when they succumb to the first frost.
Nearly 1,000 species, not counting hybrids, belong to the genus Salvia, making it the largest member of the Lamiaceae (mint) family. You can tell salvias belong to the mint family because of their characteristic square stems and opposite leaves, which generally emit a strong scent when crushed.
Garden-worthy salvia species (commonly called “sage”) range from tough-as-nails perennials to extensively hybridized tender annuals. Salvias come in all colors of the rainbow – red, blue, purple, white, yellow and a variety of fascinating shades in between. Many of their flowers are held in prominent spikes above the foliage. The calyces (cups that hold the blossoms in place) often contrast in color with the blossoms, adding additional texture and interest and extending the show long after the blooms have faded.
Salvia falls into the “bet you can’t plant just one” category. With so many colorful selections to choose from, it’s easy to become enamored by this species. They are reliable bloomers when the summer heat is oppressive and there’s not a rain cloud in sight. Not only do they add much needed color to the late summer garden, they also attract and feed a wide range of pollinators, including bees, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds.
SELECTED SALVIA SPECIES
The vast majority of salvias hail from other parts of the world, including Central and South America, Asia, Africa and Europe. About 50 species are native to North America. As large as this genus is, it’s not practical to describe all the known species. The following selections represent just a few of the species and cultivars that are generally easy to find and grow in this area of Virginia. If you are new to salvias, your quandary will be deciding which ones you like best.
Salvia greggii (Autumn Sage) – This species is native to western Texas and northern Mexico. Tough, hardy, drought tolerant, and a hummingbird magnet, it has found its way into mainstream ornamental gardens throughout the U.S. It typically grows 2 to 3 feet tall and slightly wider and is hardy in USDA Zone 7. Flower colors include red, pink, rose, purple, orange, and white. Prune it hard in early spring to prevent it from becoming woody and to encourage bushiness. A few of the many cultivars (usually between S. greggii and S. microphylla) available include:
- ‘Hot Lips’ – 3 ft. tall with red and white bicolor flowers of which some are solid red, some are white, and some are white with red lips. Hardy to USDA Zone 6.
- ‘Dark Dancer’ – 4 ft. tall with deep fuschia flowers. One of the larger Autumn Sages.
- ‘Wild Watermelon’ — 3 ft. tall with deep rosy-pink flowers.
- ‘Flame’ — 2 to 3 ft. tall with deep red flowers.
- ‘Maraschino’ – 3 ft. tall with scarlet red flowers.
- ‘Wild thing’ – 2 ft. tall with deep coral pink, darker-throated flowers. This selection has greater cold hardiness than the species.
Salvia guaranitica (Blue Anise Sage) – Hardy to USDA Zone 7, this big, bold South American native reaches 5 to 6 feet. Its large, dark green leaves are attractive even when the plant is not in bloom. But when it blooms, the brilliant blue flowers and darker-hued calyces make this plant a show stopper from summer until frost. Although a number of cultivars are available, ‘Black and Blue’ is the one most commonly found in garden centers. It is smaller than the species, averaging 3 feet in height and width. It is particularly attractive with its azure blue flowers and contrasting black calyces. Cut it back hard in winter to prevent the development of woody stems.
Salvia koyamae (Japanese Yellow Sage) – This species likes moist soil and prefers shade. It tolerates some sun and is hardy to at least USDA Zone 6. It produces more flowers in sun than in shade. Regardless of where it is planted, the 7 to 12-in. spikes of pale yellow flowers add interest to the late summer and autumn landscape. It tends to spread and will eventually form a dense ground cover.
Salvia microphylla (Mountain Sage or Little Leaf Sage) – Hardy to USDA zone 8, this species is usually grown as an annual in USDA Zone 7. It is well known for crossing with other salvia species. For example, S. greggii and S. microphylla have many similar characteristics and are often mistaken for each other. S. microphylla tolerates more shade, moisture and growing conditions than S. greggii. Although it is ideal in a sunny border or container, it appreciates some afternoon shade during the intense heat of mid-summer.
Hardy Perennial Species/Cultivars – Because of their wide distribution and ability to hybridize easily both in the wild and in cultivation, there is confusion about the lineage of many salvia cultivars and hybrids. It’s possible, for example, to find Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ labeled as salvia x sylvestris ‘Caradonna.’
- Salvia x sylvestris ‘May Night’ –
Also sold as ‘Mainacht’, this top-performing selection is in great demand because of its bountiful flower production, winter hardiness, and upright habit. One of the first salvias to bloom each year, its deep violet-blue flowers fairly dominate the May landscape. If dead-headed, it will continue to bloom sporadically, but blooms will be smaller than the initial spring display.
- Salvia x sylvestris ‘Blue Hill’ — This is another popular spring-blooming salvia with lavender-blue flowers that are lighter than those of ‘May Night’. This cold hardy cultivar does well in heavy clay soils, is drought tolerant, and is a good choice for a xeric garden. Because Blue Hill has a tendency to flop, ‘May Night’, with its more upright habit, may be a better choice.
- Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ –
This very showy, early-blooming salvia has a neat vertical habit and stunning deep blue-violet flower spikes. The dark purple stems contrast with the flower spikes and lend a bi-color look to the plant. The additional color provided by the stems keeps the plant looking interesting long after the flowers have faded. ‘Caradonna’ blooms in early summer and then sporadically throughout the summer if the spent flowers are deadheaded.
- Salvia nemorosa ‘Sensation Sky Blue’ – This 10-in. tall, compact, densely branched selection grows into a perfectly rounded mound, which can be placed at the front of the border. The flowers are medium violet blue and secondary branching extends the flowering time through mid-summer. Its dense habit makes it a good ground cover and weed suppressor in the landscape.
Tender Perennial and Annual Salvia Species and Cultivars – No description of salvias would be complete without mentioning some of the numerous widely available tender perennial and annual selections.
- Salvia coccinea (Scarlet, Tropical, or Texas Sage) – This species has the distinction of being the only salvia native to the U.S. to have red flowers. Hardy only to USDA Zone 8, it must be treated as an annual in Virginia’s USDA Zone 7, although it does freely re-seed. It grows about 2 to 3 feet tall. The red form is most common, but many S. coccinea selections are available in other colors, including pink and white selections, such as ‘Coral Nymph’ and ‘Snow Nymph’, respectively. ‘Lady in Red’, with its large, bright red flowers, is perhaps the best known of this species. It was chosen as an All-America Selections Winner in 1992. ‘Summer Jewel Red’, a 20-in. tall dwarf selection with fire engine red flowers, was winner of an All America Selection award in 2011.
- Salvia elegans (Pineapple Sage) –
This attractive, tender perennial may be used in both the ornamental garden and the herb garden. Just give it plenty of room since it can grow to about 4 feet tall and wide. Its large size and long, bright red tubular flowers draw all kinds of pollinators and are a major attraction to hummingbirds. The pineapple-scented leaves may be used in salads, tea, and other drinks. A selection called ‘Golden Delicious’ has colorful chartreuse foliage which contrasts with the bright red flowers, making them really stand out in the garden.
- Salvia farinacea (Mealy Cup Sage) –
This is one of the finest, longest flowering salvias available and is typically grown in USDA Zone 7 as an annual. Native to the United States, it is well represented in gardens all around the country. Mealy Cup sage flowers are predominately blue or purple and are also available in white. ‘Augusta Buelberg’ is an example of a white specimen. ‘Victoria Blue’ is perhaps the best known Mealy Cup sage and is loved for its constant supply of abundant, rich violet-blue blossoms from early summer all the way up to the first frost. Although not normally hardy in USDA Zone 7, it sometimes survives our milder winters only to grow more vigorously than before. It can also self-seed and may delight you in spring by popping up in unexpected places throughout the garden. Just dig up the seedlings and re-plant them where you want them.
- ‘Indigo Spires’ is believed to be a cross between S. farinacea and S. longispicata, both of which are native to Mexico. This hybrid produces long spikes of gorgeous deep blue flowers and is one of the most popular of all the cultivated salvias. Hardy only to the warmer parts of USDA Zone 7, it is best treated as an annual in this part of Virginia. It needs plenty of room because it can quickly grow to 4 feet or more tall and wide. Pinch it back to keep its size under control and to prevent it from flopping over from the weight of its long flower spikes. If you are limited for space, try ‘Mystic Spires Blue’, which is a smaller version of this plant.
- Salvia leucantha (Mexican Bush Sage) –
Native to Mexico, this plant is spectacular in the late summer garden with its rich purple velvety-looking flower spikes. Plant it in well-drained soil and give it plenty of space. The show stopper can grow 5 feet tall and wide. If you cannot accommodate a plant that large in your garden, look for a dwarf variety, such as ‘Santa Barbara’, which grows about 2 to 3 feet tall and wide. Treat it as an annual or root a cutting in early fall to winter over.
- Salvia splendens (Scarlet Sage) — A popular annual used for bedding plants, it provides a steady supply of bright color to the garden all season long. Many varieties are available in saturated shades of red, purple, pink, yellow, white, and bicolors held in large flower spikes above deep green foliage. Give some afternoon shade for best results.
USES FOR SALVIA IN THE LANDSCAPE
Depending on the species you plant, it’s possible to have salvias in bloom from mid-spring through late fall. Here are some suggested ways to use them in the landscape:
- Xeriscape gardens. Most salvia species are drought tolerant and good choices for drier gardens.
- Bedding plants. The annual species (S. splendens and S. farinacea) are favorites with many gardeners for bedding plants because of their reliable vivid colors all summer up to the first frost.
- Wild flower gardens or meadows. Long blooming native species, such as S. greggii, and S. azurea, and non-native species, such as S. sylvestris and S. nemorosa, are excellent choices for this purpose because of their drought tolerance and easy care.
- Butterfly or pollinator gardens. Bees and butterflies love salvia.
- Hummingbird garden. If you want to attract hummingbirds, salvia is the right plant for the job. Pineapple sage, with its fruity scent and bright red tubular blossoms, is particularly effective. Just plant it, stand back, and watch the show. Believe me, if you plant it, they will come.
- Deer-resistant gardens. Deer don’t like the strong scent of the foliage when it is crushed.
- Mass plantings. The saturated colors show well when planted in masses. They look particularly pretty when planted along a fence or against a stone wall.
- Mixed borders. Some of the perennial varieties, such as ‘May Night’, work well in groupings within a mixed border, especially when paired with contrasting yellow, white, and even orange.
- Container gardens. Salvias, particularly the annual varieties, are excellent choices for container gardens.
CARE AND MAINTENANCE OF SALVIA
- Sun requirements: Although most salvia species prefer full sun, a few varieties can tolerate a little shade, especially in the afternoons.
- Soil: Salvias like average soil with excellent drainage. In fact, good drainage is especially critical in the winter for members of this genus. Overly rich soil can cause the plants to be leggy in appearance. Heavy clay soil can retard root growth and contribute to root rot problems. Amend such soil with composted organic matter prior to planting salvia.
- Moisture: Most salvias are drought tolerant once established but will bloom better with regular watering. A few varieties appreciate moister soil.
- Deadheading: Removing spent blooms encourages a longer bloom time.
- Pruning/shearing: Some salvias, such as S. greggii or S. microphylla, bloom non-stop from spring through the first frost. Others, such as S. nemerosa, have a heavy flush of blooms in late spring or early summer and sporadic blooms thereafter. In either case, if blooms become sparse or if plants become leggy and unkempt, prune or shear them back to the crown to encourage fresh new growth. This will also encourage the plant to rebloom in the fall but the flowers will be fewer and smaller.
- Winter protection: For hardy varieties, leave foliage in place in autumn to protect the plant’s crown. Salvia stems are hollow (thanks to their membership in the mint family). Water can enter the stems and freeze, which can injure the crown. Wait until late winter or early spring to cut the plants back.
- Propagation: Many salvia species can be grown from seed. However, some hybrids, such as ‘Indigo Spires’, are sterile and cannot be grown from seed. Instead, they can be rooted from cuttings, which can be taken any time during the growing season. Perennial species may be divided early in spring before new growth emerges.
- Plant Diseases: Salvias are prone to fungal diseases such as powdery mildew, rust, stem rot and fungal leaf spots. These diseases may be avoided if proper cultural practices are used. For example, space plants to allow for good air circulation, amend soil so that it drains well, and avoid overhead irrigation or watering late in the day.
- Pests: Salvias may occasionally be bothered by insect pests, such as whiteflies, aphids, mealybugs and spider mites. Maintaining healthy, vigorous plants is your best strategy against pests. Healthy plants are less susceptible to pest damage than unhealthy or stressed plants. A spray of water from a hose may dislodge such pests and is the least damaging to the environment.
Armitage’s Garden Perennials, Second Edition (Armitage, Allan M., 2011)
Plant Evaluation Notes: A Performance Appraisal of Hardy Sages, Chicago Botanic Garden website (Plant Evaluation Notes on Hardy Sages)
Herbaceous Perennial Plants, Third Edition (Armitage, Allan M., 2008)
The New Book of Salvias: Sages for Every Garden (Clebsch, Betsy, 2003)
The Well-Tended Perennial Garden (DiSabato-Aust, Tracy, 2006)