Salvias for Everybody!

Sunday, September 15, 2002

Gardeners who grow annuals know salvia as a bright red summer flowering plant, with names like “Red Hot Sally” (S. splendens), a twelve inch power pack of a plant, ideal for mass plantings. Perennial gardeners more likely grow  “Indigo Spires” (S. holwayi) for tall, dark, and handsome at the back of the border. Or “Victoria Blue” (S. farinacea), summer’s best spikey flower on a plant about fourteen inches tall. In addition to red and blue flowers, white salvias can grace every summer garden. 

But this family of plants goes much farther. Nearly every potpourri contains a bit of pineapple sage (S. elegans). And what herb garden is complete with out culinary sage (S. officianalis), grown as a perennial in cool summers and an annual where heat and humidity torture it. As if all these great qualities weren’t enough for one plant family, the Labiatae family is also home to coleus and mint. They’re easy to grow and well-adapted to all parts of the country.

Salvias are also known as sages and often referred to by their cultivar names, like ‘Lady in Red” or ‘Snow Nymph’, her white counterpart (S. coccinea). There are annuals, tender and hardy perennials in the group, but even where they will freeze, salvias make superb container plants. Sages range in height from less than one foot to the majestic four foot Mexican bush sage (S. leucantha) and towering eight foot mountain sage (S. regla).  Many are drought resistant once established, with long flowering seasons and great ability to attract bees and hummingbirds.

Transplant salvias in the spring after the soil warms up and water in with transplant solution or root stimulator fertilizer. Pinch the plants if they are leggy, or to make cuttings for rooting. Keep the flowers picked off to extend bloomtime. And this year, take advantage of new varieties and old favorites to plant an All-American garden bed, in red, white, and blue.

When planting patriotic salvias, use the tallest (about 18”) varieties (‘Lady in Red’, ‘Snow Nymph’, blue and white‘Victoria’) for large containers. They are bushy plants with tall flower spikes that look wonderful ranked by smaller pots of other annuals, preferably those with round flowers for contrast. Surround a rectangular planter of salvia with round pots of zinnias, gazania, coreopsis, and shasta daisies for even more drama. Use tall salvias in the middle of borders, or to step down the design in front of shrubbery. They will grow on any sunny site in a well-drained garden soil and will grow slightly larger in the ground than in pots.

Combine the mid height salvias (about 15”) with asparagus fern, brachycome, and petunias in hanging baskets. These include blue Rhea, white Cirrus, and the 1996 AAS winner Strata, whose silvery white has traces of blue. These are S. farinacea, or mealycup sage, known for small leaves and tall spikes of close-ranked flowers. Also in this range is the excellent Empire series, with big leaves and stocky flower spikes and known for its habit of ready branching that results in more flowers.

The shortest, low growers stand ready to line the front of the border or fill the bed by the sidewalk. ‘Salsa’ brings the most scarlet of the salvia reds, different from the pure red of the Sizzler series and almost orangey tones of ‘Red Hot Sally.’ Take your choice, they’ll all grow 12 to 14 inches tall. Keep them deadheaded and fertilize monthly during the season.

A favorite of landscapers, perennial Victoria blue and white salvia can be grown as annuals in seasonal beds. They come into bloom rapidly and continue for weeks. Their flowers are about the size of chubby pencils and make a perfect complement to a short S. splendens like Salsa planted around or in front. Also an early bloomer, these very upright plants add scarlet red edges and grow well planted slightly closer together than other annual salvias.

Wave the flag in decorative containers planted with cirrus and rhea, white and blue mealy sages circled with the lovely-leaved red Sizzler to fill the pots to their edge. If you just never remember to add fertilizer to your water regime, use a slow-release fertilizer that releases in water.

For a different sort of salvia style, reach to the tall ‘Indigo Spires’ (S. holwayi’) for background in a perennial bed. Plant three in a five foot space, then add ten plants in a diagonal in front. Stagger ‘Lady in Red’ with ‘Snow Nymph’. The combination puts dense blue-purple with looser flowerheads in red and white.

In beds where one type lives alone, or combines for different textures and flower sizes, salvia belongs in every garden. Take advantage of her good nature and let red, white, and blue salvia brighten your Independence Day this year.

This is the unedited version of an article that appeared in Garden Almanac, a publication of GroGroup.

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