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Salvias – A Plethora of Choices for the Gardener

by Don Urbanus

          Salvia, also commonly known as sage, and includes 900 species and probably more cultivars (cultivated varieties) from around the world.  Uses for sage range from ornamental to culinary and medicinal to sacred. 

          Sages all have square stems – a sure sign that it is in the mint family of which sage is the largest member.  Members of the mint family list out like a who’s who of herbs: oregano, rosemary, thyme, lavender, marjoram, basil, catnip and of course, mint.

          Sages are so varied they can be an annual, a perennial, evergreen or deciduous, a shrub or a biennial, which only lives two years.  Some have fragrant flowers or aromatic leaves used in cooking or for incense.  Almost all attract bees, butterflies or hummingbirds.

          The sage everyone is most familiar with is the Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis) because it is used as a culinary herb.  Leaves are usually dried hanging upside down clipped to a hanger.  When dry, you can store them in a jar whole, rub them with your hands or whiz them up in a blender.  Flowers are very attractive and come in white, pink or blue.  There are cultivars with variegated, purple, golden, extra large or small leaves. 

          The most important trick in growing the Garden Sage, and most sages, is good drainage in the soil.  Sages in general will be short-lived in soggy soils.  Planting on mounds will help keep plants healthier with less root problems.  Almost all sages are drought tolerant and most are also deer resistant.

          There are so many new cultivars of ornamental sages that it’s hard to keep up.  Salvia greggii and Salvia microphylla, both from the southern U.S. and Mexico, have been cranking out lots of colorful varieties.  With names like ‘Flame’, ‘Lipstick’, ‘Hot Lips’, and compact hybrids from a microphylla stock plant from UC Berkeley like ‘Berzerkely’, ‘Free Speech’, and ‘Flower Child’, these plants and others are cranking out a tremendous variety of superior flowering sages that are hardy down to about 15 to 20º F.

          Mexican Sage (Salvia leucantha) is another southern sage with wonderfully fuzzy white and purple flowers.  It flowers in spring and again in the fall with a never-ending display until the frost comes.  It is more sensitive to cold than other sages and usually dies back to the ground to return again another year.

          Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) gets covered in a mass display of bright red flowers mostly in the fall in our area that will have hummingbirds fighting for property rights.  It is also sensitive to cold and dies back to the ground in the foothills.  In mild climates it can bloom from fall to spring.  As the name denotes, the leaves have a pineapple fragrance and can be used to flavor drinks.

          Cleveland or California Blue Sage (Salvia clevelandii) is an evergreen shrub native to southern California.  The fragrance from the grey leaves demands attention.  It is wonderfully pungent and the blue flowers in late spring and early summer give a nice show.  It is also very drought tolerant.  ‘Allen Chickering” is the most common variety.

          Salvia nemerosa is an extremely hardy perennial from Eastern Europe with a mass of purple flowers in the spring.  It only grows a couple feet tall but creates an eye-catching display in the spring.  There are several hybrids with varying colors of blue to purple.

          Anise-scented Sage (Salvia guarantica) is a perennial that can grow to 4-5’ tall.  The variety ‘Black and Blue’ has large attractive fragrant leaves with blue and dark purple blossoms that make its name quite appropriate.  Cold will burn the branches to the ground but it returns to make another display year after year.

          There are so many choices when it comes to sages including annual colorful sages in colors from red, pink, violet, white, and purple.  The list is practically endless.  Wherever you live there is a sage for you.





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