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Sages (Salvia) have been grown in gardens for a thousand years to make medicine and for use as culinary spice. The ancient Romans believed Sage sharpened the mind and imparted wisdom. In the Mediterranean, North Africa and later in Europe, it was thought to be a symbol of skill, long life, and good health.
Now, two thousand years later not only do we still plant sage for practical uses in our gardens, but there are also now dozens of ornamental species available too!
One of the upsides of globalization is that we now have access to a dizzying array of simply stunning salvias. The genus of Salvia is the largest in the Lamiaceae (or Mint) Family, and therefore has a wide array of flower color, foliage and growing habits. Salvias are often later season bloomers that can carry color in the garden until first frost. They can be used in a variety of settings such as containers (see our August 2007 Container Design), hanging baskets, drought tolerant areas and well tended garden beds.
Salvias can be annual or perennial, sub-shrub or herbaceous, and evergreen or deciduous. Leaves are opposite and carried on square hairy stems and are often aromatic when crushed. Flowers are tubular with a split lower petal. They are a pollinator magnet, drawing bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. They are also a low allergen plant, which makes them suitable for sensitive gardeners.
There are so many we had to narrow down the list so here are a few of our favorites that are often available locally:
Salvia coccinea This beauty is a popular bedding plant and has been in cultivation for over 200 years. Easily grown from seed or from starts, this species branches up and out to 3 feet during its long- blooming season. The green textural leaves are hairy beneath, and flowers are borne in groups along the stems for up to 12 inches.
Salvia farinacea One of the other common bedding plant choices for this genus, S. farinacea embodies the cooler side of salvias with dusty whites and impressionist painting bluish purples. They can take light shade to sun and are a great filler plant with a mature size of about 16" tall by 10" inches wide.
'Victoria' has blue-purple stems and flowers and is one of the tallest at 20". 'Rhea' is a more compact version of 'Victoria' topping out a 14 inches. 'Strata' has silvery grey stems and calyces with a deep blue corolla in the center. Showy! And the winner of Britain's bedding plant of the year for 1997.
Salvia splendens Hot, hot, hot! This diverse species comes in an array of colors; red, purple, pink, salmon, white, and bicolor. In general plants grow to be 12"-18" tall by 12" wide but there is a wide range depending on hybrid. Masses of concentric stacks of tubular flowers gives the plant compact, spiky look. Similar to those listed above, you will get a lot more action out of this plant if you deadhead the spent blossoms. Keep an eye out for slugs and aphids.
There are more than 20 cultivars of this species, however not all are common as grown bedding plants. The 'Sizzler' and the 'Salsa' are two common, fabulous series that are widely available.
(Generally comes back, but may not survive a cold winter)
Salvia discolor An unusual deciduous Salvia that hails from Peru. The foliage is lightly scented, green on top, silvery gray beneath, with long stems (up to 2 ft. tall) that bear flowers for almost 12 inches. The stems are sticky so it's best planted where it won't be brushed up against. The amazing part is the flowers themselves, which are a color of such deep indigo that they can appear black, creating a fabulous contrast with the grey flower sheaths and green stems.
Salvia elegans Ahhh…the lovely scent of pineapple. If you don't have access to a pina colada, or some nice fresh fruit you can crush the leaves of this scented salvia as you walk through your garden. Green leaves and a flush of RED flowers make this a wonderful addition to any garden. Grows to 2" by 2" and flowers until frost!
Salvia greggii The collection of cultivars that fall under this species are dainty, airy, and come in quite a spectrum of colors; mostly pinks and reds but also in purple, white, peach, and soft yellow. The flower heads are open and the leaves are much smaller than on other salvias.
This species hybridizes with S. microphylla easily, so we can expect to see more cultivars of this appear as time goes on. Some of the many hybrids available now include; 'Sierra San Antonio', 'Lipstick', 'Navajo Purple', 'Chiffon' and many more. Mature size varies but is usually around 30" by 24".
Salvia guarantica Also known as Anise-scented sage, S. guarantica is an elegant garden drama queen. The erect, branching stems grow dark as they near the tips and terminate in a 8” head of glowing vibrant blue-violet flowers that last until frost. Usually perennial, they need mulching to protect from winter cold and often die back to the ground in any case. Set out the slug bait around these guys.
Mature size is often 20" wide by 4"-8" depending on culture, cultivar, and conditions. 'Black and Blue' comes in to bloom mid season and is most like the description above. 'Blue enigma' lacks the dark stems and calyces but begins to bloom earlier in the season.
(fabulous foliage year one, fabulous foliage and flowers year two)
Salvia argentea Silver sage Forms a rosette of super fuzzy grey-sliver leaves. In the second year it bears stalks up to three feet tall of white flowers with mauve flecks displayed in whorls. This species is of Mediterranean origin, is very drought tolerant and would love a sunny spot in a rockery or herb garden. Watch out for slugs and snails!
Saliva sclarea Clary Sage A native of southern Europe and North Africa, this plant is beloved by many and has been used for thousands of years. However it is important to note that it is not beloved by all. The State of Washington has just added it to their invasive weed list and growers there are subject to fines.
This plant is at it’s best in early summer when the flower stalks (up to 3-4 feet tall) open up pinkish-white-violet-blue flowers above the 6” large, rough, hairy leaves. If you do remove the spent heads you should see another flush of blooms in the fall.
(Returns for numerous seasons)
Salvia nemerosa Generally deciduous, S. nemerosa is a compact with a thick basal rosette of textural, crinkled, leathery leaves and a mass of compact densely flowered spikes. This variety is nicely drought tolerant when established and comes in rich violet blues and occasionally pink. The mature size for most cultivars is around 18”by 18”. Common varieties include 'East Friesland' a.k.a. 'Ostfriesland', 'Cardonna', 'Blue Hills' a.k.a. 'Blauhugel', and 'May Night' which are all shades of violet. 'Pink Friesland' is as one might guess, a lavender-pink variety.
Salvia officionalis (Garden Sage) This variety is the one commonly used for culinary (and sometimes medicinal) purposes. Bearing highly aromatic evergreen leaves, this is a small woody shrub maturing around 1-2" tall, and up to 3" wide depending on the cultivar and conditions. Purple (and occasionally white) flowers are held up above the foliage. There are now quite a few varieties of this aromatic leaved Mediterranean plant available.
Beyond 'sage green', numerous colors of leaved and flowered varieties exist including 'Berggarten' (larger leaf), Curly (thinner rippled leaves), and 'Variegated' a.k.a. 'Golden' (green and gold), as well as an interesting variegated one called 'Tricolor' (Green, purple and white).
Salvia uglinosa (Bog sage) One of the tallest sages around, the deciduous Bog Sage tops out at 4-5' and 20" wide. Medium blue flowers bloom summer and fall. This loves a sunny well-drained position and will enjoy a moister situation than other Salvias.
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Genus: Salvia (sal-vee-yah)
Common Name: Species dependent
Origin: 900 species from all around the world, except cold regions and tropical forests. Around half of the species are endemic to the Americas.
Culture: Nearly all species are full sun lovers and do best with at least 5 hours of sun daily. They can tolerate a variety of soil conditions but most have trouble in heavy wet soils, so amend the soil with compost at planting time here in the great Northwest.
Well-drained, light, alkaline soils that are moisture retentive are ideal. Many species are not particularly long lived and may need to be replaced every 5 or so years.
Pests and Diseases: With proper drainage and enough sun, Salvias are remarkably care free. Slugs, snails, and caterpillars may be attracted to the foliage. Where soils are dry and air is humid, powdery mildew may occur.
Maintenance: For both annual and perennial species, deadheading (removing spent flower heads as soon as they are done) will encourage new blooms and help keep the plant tidy. Prune in spring to remove damaged or unattractive stems. When pruning for health and shape, avoid pruning to bare wood as salvias tend to take great offence to this.
Propagation: Seed of all species can be sown in spring (particularly successful with annual types). Softwood cuttings are best taken in early summer or any time during the growing season.
Division of rhizomatous species can be done at almost any time, although moving or dividing plants during the heat of summer is best avoided.