Brian Minter: Salvias are one of our most prized garden plants

Brian Minter: Salvias are one of our most prized garden plants

Opinion: True perennial sage has exploded in popularity over the past few years.

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One of our most prized garden plants is one of the most important members of the mint family, which includes more than 900 species from around the world.

Sage, also known as Sage lamiaceae, plays a wide range of roles – everything from being a culinary flavor to being one of our most stunning ornamental perennials and annuals. The majority of varieties are tender.

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The three most important species in today’s gardens are Salvia nemorosa from Eastern Europe and Asia, Salvia officinalis or garden sage, our favorite in traditional cooking, and Salvia sylvestris. Other hardy perennial sagebrush plants, such as S. coccineas (subtropical from Mexico) and S. Farinacea, are very popular in our summer “annual” gardens.

They all share many similarities. If you examine it carefully, you will find that it has square stems, and the two-lipped flowers are spaced along the flower stalks and appear to look like a dense spike. Available in a range of colors from red, lavender, purple and blue to salmon, white and yellow, they can create a diverse display for the garden. Most sage plants have fragrant foliage and attract pollinators, hummingbirds and butterflies, making them invaluable garden plants.

Proven winners, Rockin' Salvias are impressive plants for containers or beds.
Proven winners, Rockin’ Salvias are impressive plants for containers or beds. Minter Country Park

All sage plants need good air circulation to prevent mildew and other fungal problems. Once established, most sage plants are heat and drought tolerant, but require deep, thorough watering to keep them thriving. Oddly enough, they do not like hard pruning. However, more strategic and careful pruning will encourage new growth which will improve the overall appearance and promote some repeat blooms.

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As an annual, hardy perennial or tender perennial, sage plants contribute greatly to our gardens today. By far, the most popular sage is S. farinacea. They are a great focal point in many gardens at the moment, and perform equally well in containers or ground beds. The most famous is the Victoria series, which has beautiful blue or white flowers and holds up well until October frosts. There are many other seedless cultivars, such as dwarf S. Rhea, S. Strata and the dark blue Evolution Series. They are all great performers in the garden and attract pollinators.

One of the more recent introductions is a multi-genre series called Big Blue. It grows up to three feet tall, provides a continuous display of deep blue flowers and is heat and drought tolerant. It is also a great attractant for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

Although the popularity of traditional red, white and lavender sage has declined dramatically, mainly due to slug and insect problems, it will tolerate hot summer conditions. They’ve been replaced by many new favorites, like Proven Wins’ Rockin’ series. These new hybrids are perhaps some of the most spectacular and tall-growing annuals, often reaching 24 to 30 inches. The large, showy flower heads come in many colors, including blue, fuchsia and purple, and are also a magnet for hummingbirds. This series brings real excitement to container growers and can install absolutely stunning flower bed displays. The Rockin Series is heat and drought tolerant, and will add fresh vibrancy from mid-summer through fall.

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One of the most interesting blue sage plants is the introduction to Dummen Orange called Hummingbird Falls. It reaches three feet in height. It blooms all summer with huge purple-blue flowers. And yes, hummingbirds love it. They should be grown in a large container so they can really be displayed.

Some new S. coccinea species are causing quite a stir. Two of the most interesting ones are the Summer Jewel and the Hummingbird series. Both reach about 20 inches in height, flower well in the fall and are excellent choices for containers. Hummingbirds are attracted to the flowers, and later in the summer, goldfinches are attracted to the seeds.

There are many perennial sage plants that deserve some attention in our gardens. Dummen Orange in the Netherlands has introduced the Heatwave series which, as the name suggests, is highly tolerant to heat and drought. Available in many shades of pink, as well as salmon, white, blue and red, these varieties are continuous bloomers through summer and into fall, and have an attractive, rounded habit. They’re super attractive to pollinators – the vibrant pink and red colors attract lots of hummingbird attention.

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There are many other hybrid species that thrive in the heat and are simply common in summer gardens. Salvia Hot Lips, with its unique white and red flowers, has become a popular favorite product.

The popularity of true perennial sage has exploded over the past few years. Led by older Nemorosa cultivars, such as Caradonna and May Night, there are so many new cultivars in all sizes that it is difficult to keep up. The compact Marvel series, especially the pink varieties, have a much longer reblooming period.

The Scentsation Series is also a compact variety, growing about 12 inches tall with a wide range of colors, including soft blue, pink and white. It’s a good repeat too.

Proven Winers has a beautiful collection called S. Color Spires, in a variety of vibrant colours. It’s a little taller, about 18 to 20 inches, and is basal branching, so you get a nicely rounded plant.

In addition to the few species I mentioned, there are many more varieties of sage available, but suffice it to say, all sage species of any type make wonderful contributions to our gardens now and throughout the summer. Pollinators, butterflies and hummingbirds will be present in gardens that contain them, and it’s nice to know that the summer heat won’t dampen the beauty of salvia or hinder its performance.

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