Salvias – A Plethora of
Choices for the Gardener
by Don Urbanus
Salvia, also commonly known as sage, and includes 900
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
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
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
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.