Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
The holidays would not be the same without sage. Many people use the herb sage, Salvia officinalis as a seasoning for poultry, a common dish on holiday tables. But there is a lot more to sage than the culinary herb.
The name sage encompasses a large group of ornamental and medicinal plants in the mint family. There are three different genera all considered to be types of sages: Salvia, Perovskia and Phlomis.
Salvia is the largest genus, and probably the most familiar of the sages. There are over 900 species of Salvia, both annuals and perennials. They bear their tube shaped flowers on spikes above the foliage. Salvia officinalis is the Latin name for common sage, small semi-evergreen shrub-like plant about 24-36 inches tall used as a culinary herb. While its use in cooking is well-established and popular, it is underused as a landscape plant.
In my own garden common sage has a spot in my herb garden, but also out among the perennials. Its blue-purple flowers are spectacular and last a relatively long time in the spring. When not in flower, common sage's grey-green foliage adds some variety to the garden and accents pink or purple flowered plants beautifully.
Common sage holds most of its leaves through the winter, and parts become woody over time. This is why it is designated as "semi-evergreen" and "shrub-like" respectively. I have found common sage to be extremely hardy in my garden, and it has provided some winter interest as well because of its woody structure.
Other cultivars of common sage that may be of interest because of their unique foliage colors are:
· 'Tricolor'—foliage is variegated in shades of green, pink, and cream
· 'Purpurea'—leaves are grey-purple
· 'Icterina'—also labeled as "Golden Sage", leaves are variegated in green and golden yellow.
I have grown the cultivars listed above and found that they are less hardy than the straight species. They also tend to be a little smaller. They benefit from being planted in a sheltered location and an extra handful of mulch placed over them will offer extra protection from repeated freezing and thawing over the winter. These cultivars do tend to die back completely to the ground and do not form the woody stems that the straight species does. It took some experimenting to find a location in my garden where they would overwinter successfully.
There are both annual and perennial Salvias grown for purely ornamental use. The most common annual ornamental sage is Salvia splendens, also known as Bedding Sage. Flowers are available in red, purple, orange, yellow, lavender, and white. The only color I knew growing up was the red version, which my mom called "Firecrackers". This common name is fitting because as the flowers develop, the center section of petals extends outward much like an exploding firecracker.
Another Salvia commonly marketed as an annual is Mealycup Sage, Salvia farinacea. I routinely receive questions about the winter hardiness this species, as it is considered to be a perennial in Zone 7b. Officially, central Illinois is Zone 5b, on the edge of Zone 6. Some new maps suggest we are actually Zone 6. My opinion based on observations in my own garden is there is a 50/50 chance that Mealycup Sage will overwinter successfully. I look at it as a nice bonus if it happens to overwinter but I don't count on it. The most common cultivar of this species that I've seen is the 'Victoria Series' which comes in a deep blue or white flower.
There are far too many other ornamental Salvias to list. As a group, they tend to be trouble-free and thrive in hot dry summers. Although that doesn't describe summers of recent history in this area, Salvias do perform well here. They are relatively maintenance free with a long season of bloom, plus their tubular flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds, all winning features in my book.