Sage advice: Welcome salvia into your garden

With its large tubular flowers, hummingbird sage (S. spathacea) attracts birds from which it derives its name. (Brent McGee/Contributed)

If you’re starting a list of plants to plant in the ground this fall, you may want to add a sage or two. With just under 1,000 species, Salvia is the largest genus in the mint family (Lamiaceae).

Known as sages, salvias come in an amazing variety of shapes and colors. Salvias can be evergreen or deciduous shrubs, or perennial, biennial or annual flowering plants.

“The Real Dirt” is a column written by several local master gardeners who are part of the UC Butte County Master Gardeners.

Although their flowers are often shades of blue or purple, different types of sage also produce white, yellow, pink, red, or even bi-colored flowers.

As members of the mint family, all Salvia flowers are bilobed (bilobate) and typically arranged in dense spines. Salvia leaves are usually found in opposite pairs on square stems, but the leaves can also be arranged singly on the stems of Salvia shrub species. Sage leaves are aromatic and give off a mint-like scent when crushed. Sages of the genus Salvia should not be confused with sage (Artemesia tridentata), which has none of these characteristics and is a member of the sunflower family (Asteraceae).

What distinguishes the Salvia genus from the rest of the mint family is the structure of its flowers. The stamens of these flowers form a lever and when the pollinator enters the flower, the lever causes the stamens to move and deposit pollen on the pollinator. When a pollinator enters another flower of the same species, the stigma of the flower is positioned so that it rubs against the pollen on the pollinator’s body, virtually ensuring pollination!

In addition to the stunning flowers, Salvia’s beautiful, fragrant leaves range in color from various shades of green to light grey. In addition, many salvia plants have an extended flowering season (some lasting from spring through fall) and their flowers attract a wide range of pollinators, including hummingbirds, butterflies and bees. Salvias also tolerate a wide range of soil types and many thrive in full sun, needing minimal water during hot, dry summers. These plants are also low maintenance and relatively free of diseases and pests. The final, but certainly not insignificant, advantage of these plants is that they are generally deer resistant. The chemicals that give salvia leaves their distinctive minty smell appear to have an unpleasant taste, and the result is that deer rarely graze on them. What’s not to like about these tough, attractive plants?

Many species of sage are on display in the Master Gardeners Demonstration Garden at the Patrick Ranch Museum (located at 10381 Midway between Chico and Durham). Popular sage plants in the display garden include: black and blue sage (Salvia guarnitica), creeping sage (S. sonomensis), hummingbird sage (S. spathacea), autumn sage (S. greggii), and Cleveland sage (S. clevelandii).

Black and blue sage has dense, dark blue flower petals with an almost black calyx (the leaf-like structure at the base of the flower); It blooms from summer until fall. Found in the Butte All Stars section of the Demonstration Garden, it grows three to five feet high, has light green leaves, and will grow in full sun or partial shade. Although S. guarnitica prefers moderate watering, it can tolerate dry conditions. It is a perennial in the valley and foothills, but is treated as an annual in areas where winter temperatures regularly drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Creeping sage and ‘Bee’s Bliss’ salvia are similar groundcovers. Both are found in the California Natives section of the display park. These evergreen perennials reach four to six inches in height, and a single plant can spread 12 feet or more. Its leaves are a beautiful silvery green colour. They produce an abundance of blue-violet flower spikes from spring to early summer. These plants are moderately drought tolerant and will grow in full or partial sun.

With its large, dark red, tubular flowers, hummingbird sage (S. spathacea) is a hummingbird magnet. This California native is grown in the Mediterranean section of the display garden, where it blooms from March to May. It is an evergreen perennial with oblong, bright green leaves that can have a wrinkled appearance. Hummingbird sage grows one to three feet tall and up to three feet wide. This plant grows in full sun, but prefers partial shade, making it ideal for growing under oak trees. Once established, they require very little water.

Autumn sage may be one of the few plants best known by its scientific name, Salvia greigeii. This plant blooms from early summer until fall and the flowers of S. greggii are usually some form of red, but can also be bi-coloured, white, pink, pink, purple or orange. It is an evergreen perennial, but can be dormant in the winter in cold areas. It grows two to three feet tall and wide.

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