Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Without consciously realizing it, I have quite a few salvias planted in my landscape. There is huge variation in form and flower color in the genus Salvia, so it's not obvious that they are all related until you look closer. Commonly, these plants are also referred to as sages. Practically speaking, those plants typically used to flavor cooking are called sages, and ornamental plants are usually called salvia.
The name Salvia comes from the Latin word 'salvere' which means "to heal". The name Salvia was given to honor this plant's healing properties. Both the ancient Greeks and Romans used Salvia medicinally. The ancient Romans considered Salvia to be a sacred herb and so harvesting this plant required a special ceremony and tools.
The genus Salvia is a member of the mint family, Lamiaceae. The dead giveaway to this relationship is that Salvia has four-sided stems just like other members of the mint family.
There are approximately 700-900 species of Salvia, which includes shrubs, herbaceous perennials, and annuals. There are different Salvias native to nearly all parts of the world, but scientists hypothesize that the origin of the genus is Central and Southwestern Asia.
At first glance different Salvias have widely different appearances. But a closer look reveals they all share some similarities besides four-sided stems. Flowers are produced in clusters along a spiky stem. Flower colors range from blues to red and white. Yellow is occasionally seen, but is fairly rare. The individual flowers in each cluster are tubular or bell-shaped and divided into two parts sometimes called lips.
There are far too many Salvias in cultivation to describe them all here. In our climate, some Salvias are grown as annuals, some are grown as perennials.
Annual salvias are commonly grown as bedding plants. A popular species is Salvia splendens, commonly called Bedding Sage, or Firecrackers. It is most commonly found with red flowers, but lavender, white, purple, orange and yellow are also available. Sizes range from eight to thirty inches tall.
A unique annual Salvia is Pineapple Sage, Salvia elegans. It is prized for its pineapple scented leaves and edible bright red flowers. Another similar species is Salvia dorisiana, Fruit Sage. Its leaves smell like tropical fruit punch.
A favorite annual Salvia of mine is Salvia farinacea, also called Mealycup Sage. Flowers of this species are white or violet blue on spikes up to ten inches long. My favorite cultivar is 'Victoria Blue' which works great in my orange and blue Illini garden. 'Victoria Blue' is sold as an annual and is listed as hardy to Zone 6, but has overwintered occasionally for me in our Zone 5b climate.
Another annual Salvia that may be semi-perennial in your garden is Brazillian Blue Sage, Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue', also listed as hardy to Zone 6. This cultivar has stunning deep blue flowers with a black base. I have some planted in containers along with orange Black-eyed Susan vine, Thunbergia, which is a very eye catching combination. I will attempt to overwinter the 'Black and Blue' Salvia in my garage this winter.
There are many perennial Salvias to choose from. A favorite is the herb Common Sage, Salvia officinalis. I started out planting this Salvia only in my herb garden, but soon decided it deserved a spot in other areas of my garden. Its soft grey-green leaves look beautiful on their own, but are even more attractive when the blue-purple flowers make their debut in the spring. In my garden, the Common Sage is very hardy and is becoming woody and shrub-like. I do cut it back severely in the spring to keep it from becoming spindly.
Other related sages that are not as hardy are Salvia officinalis 'Icterina', which has golden variegation, and 'Tricolor' which is variegated in cream and pink. In my garden 'Icterina' has survived for three years now, and so has 'Tricolor'. But something about 'Tricolor' seems to appeal to the local rabbits. They have nibbled it to death reliably each spring.
Hybrid Salvias are a great hardy plant for any garden. If you keep up with deadheading them, they will bloom reliably from late spring through the fall. A favorite of mine is 'East Friesland' which has deep purple flowers that really pop next to the yellow-orange 'Stella d'Oro' daylily.
The Hybrid Salvia cultivar 'May Night' has deep violet-blue flowers and was selected as the 1997 Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association. I tried to plant 'May Night' in my garden, and it grew well, but apparently the voles that invaded my garden last winter loved it too. They ate every last bit of the roots and crown underground, and nothing was left to grow this spring!
Most Salvias prefer a full sun location in the garden and well-drained soil. They are relatively problem and pest free except in cool, wet conditions. Cool wet weather can make Salvia susceptible to fungal diseases.
I have barely scratched the surface of possible Salvias to plant in your garden. They are a great addition for any garden, if not for how easy they are to grow, but for the fact that they are butterfly and hummingbird magnets as well.