Botanical name: Salvia species
Common name: Salvia
Traits: Sun, Coastal, Feature, Hedge, Container, Birds
Salvia is the largest genus in the mint (Lamiaceae) family, represented by around 900 species of annuals, perennials, and soft-wooded evergreen shrubs that are found in a wide range of habitats. Though more than half the species are native to the Americas, Mexico in particular, the genus has a distribution that is almost worldwide. The common name for the genus is sage, and while sage (Salvia officinalis) is a renowned flavoursome herb, other species in the genus also have culinary and medicinal applications.
Flowering Season: Summer, Autumn, Spring
Appearance- Salvia species range from small annuals to large shrubby perennials and encompass a wide variety of foliage types. Most are hairy to some extent and many have foliage that is aromatic when crushed or rubbed, and several have heavily felted silver-gray leaves. All bear their flowers in upright spikes, often with whorls of blooms around the stem. The tubular flowers have conspicuous lips, and are often borne in abundance. They vary greatly in size, and the colour range moves through shades of blue to purple, and pink to red, as well as white and some yellows.
Cultivation- With such a diverse genus, cultivation requirements vary enormously. Most species, however, prefer a sunny position with moist, humus-rich, well-drained soil. Hardiness varies considerably and many are tender. Prune in spring to remove straggly, bare, or frost-damaged stems. Propagation of most shrubby species is very easy from softwood cuttings taken throughout the growing season. Seed of all species is sown in spring.
Salvias vary in height from about 30cm high, such as ‘Bonfire’, to large shrubs that are up to 3m tall and wide. Flowers are arranged in spires and come in tones of blue, purple, cerise, red, pink, white, yellow and orange. Most are at their best from spring to early winter, but there are salvias that flower almost year-round.
Salvias are true cottage garden plants as they are long-flowering, easy to propagate and easy to grow. However, their value to all gardens has been accentuated by the way they thrived during the dry times, but continued to grow well even where there were heavy rains.
Some salvias wind down over winter (a cue to cut them back to ground level) but there is a group, native to the cool mountainous regions of Central and South America, that grow strongly through autumn to flower during winter and spring.
Many of these varieties are large (some get as tall as 2.5m) but they are excellent to grow beside spring- and summer-flowering plants that look scrappy or are deciduous in winter. Then, during spring, when the other plants are looking good, these salvias have their downtime and are cut back as they finish their flowering.
One such variety is fruit-scented sage (Salvia dorisiana) which has masses of growth now in readiness for its winter show of bright pink blooms. The lime-green foliage brings a fruity fragrance to the garden at any time of the year. It grows 1.5 – 2m tall and does well in both sun or shade.
Another unusual selection for winter is Salvia madrensis. It is multi-stemmed with bold, yellow flowers on long spikes. Flowering starts in autumn and continues into winter.
Gardening with Salvias
Salvias can be grown individually or mass planted as annuals to create blocks of colour or to edge a garden bed. S. ‘Bonfire’ and mealy sage (Salvia farinacea ‘Victoria’ and ‘Victoria Blue’) are often planted in this way. Meanwhile, larger, sprawling, shrubby salvias can be used to soften paths and steps. Their fragrant leaves are a pleasure to brush against.
These plants team well with other perennials, particularly ornamental grasses and tall-growing choices such as gaura, dahlia, rudbeckia and plectranthus. They also work well as a colour foil for brightly coloured annuals such as cosmos.
These salvias, both species and Hybrid cultivars, are guaranteed to add colour to your garden over many months. This selection is particularly useful if you’re new to salvias, as they are all easy to grow.
Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) This plant has spires of red flowers for months and pineapple-scented leaves year-round. It is frost tolerant, but remains more compact in colder gardens. The flowers are highly attractive to birds.
Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha) With velvety white and purple flowers at the end of every stem, this salvia thrives in low-water gardens and is rarely seen without a flower. It is partially frost tolerant. Also seek out cultivars such as ‘Midnight’ (dark purple flowers), ‘Velour White’ (white flowers), ‘Velour Pink’ (pale pink flowers) and the compact ‘Santa Barbara’
‘Waverly’ For most of the year, this bushy salvia is covered in white-tipped mauve flowers – indeed, it is hard to cut back as it just flowers and flowers! However, it is better suited to hot, humid areas and is only partially frost tolerant. ‘Phyllis Fancy’ is derived from ‘Waverly’ and has mauve-blue flowers, stems and bracts. The birds love it.
‘Wendy’s Wish’ Cerise flowers cover this naturally compact shrub. If it starts to look scrappy, cut it down and it will quickly re-flower. It is tolerant to -2°C.
‘Indigo Spires’ This plant has long spikes of purple-blue flowers and is a good choice for a beginner gardener. ‘Black Knight’, which has deep purple flowers, is also easy to grow. It isn’t frost tolerant, but it regrows after frost. When stems reach 20cm tall, pinch out the tips to create a denser plant.