Salvia is the largest genus of plants in the mint family with more than 800 different species, from annuals and biennials to perennials and even some forms of shrubs. Most are thought to be ornamentals, but the common culinary sage, Salvia officinalis, is a mainstay in many herb gardens, and the chia seeds sold as a culinary powerhouse are the seeds from Salvia hispanica.
Since all members of the Sage family are in the mint family, they all have square stems and aromatic leaves—some more than others. This aromatic characteristic usually makes these plants less attractive to wildlife, but this is not always the case.
Most sage plants thrive in full sun but tolerate light shade. They do not do well in poorly drained soil. Once established, they are quite drought tolerant but will appreciate additional watering when dry. Fertilize mostly monthly throughout the growing season.
Flower color can range from red and pink to shades of purple, blue, white, and even some yellow. Leaves can be green, variegated, gray or silver.
While ornamental species are usually grown for their flowers, a few are grown for the shape and texture of their leaves. Silver sage (Salvia argentea) is often confused with lamb’s ears with its smooth, smooth leaves. It is a relatively short-lived perennial.
Flowers with lips
The flowers can vary in color and size, but they are all genetically similar, and have two lips – the upper lip is usually erect and covered, while the lower lip is wider and more open. The flowers are usually born in flower spikes, with some flowers clustered densely on the stems while others have more space between individual flowers.
Flowering time varies depending on the species. Some bloom in spring or fall, others bloom all summer. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds love salvia flowers.
With so many species of sage to choose from, and new introductions annually, it’s hard to know which one to choose. Mature size varies from some annuals that grow no more than 12 inches tall to some woody specimens such as Salvia gregii, or cherry sage, which can reach up to 4 feet in height and width. Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) is a perennial that dies back to the ground each year, but will grow up to 5 feet or more in one season and has large, velvet-like blooms from late summer through fall.
In recent years, the Wish series of salvia has generated a lot of interest. It was developed in Australia with some of the proceeds going to the Make a Wish Foundation of Australia, and there are three products I have seen sold in Arkansas – “Love and Wishes.” https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2020/sep /19/salvia- splendor/”Wendy’s Wish” and “Ember’s Wish”. These plants bloom all summer long and can get very large.
Other ‘black and blue’ sage perennials include Salvia guaranitica, with dark blue and dark purple flowers; ‘Indigo Towers’ with large purple spikes of flowers; Mealycup sage (S. farinacea), with a more compact growth habit, with options for blue (“Victoria Blue”) or white (“Victoria White”) flowering forms.
A common red-flowering sage in the fall is the Pineapple Sage (S. elegans). Two other red sage varieties are ‘Lady in Red’ and ‘Hot Lips’ in red and white. Pink options include ‘Pink Profusion’ and ‘Rockin Fuchsia’.
While some gardeners may find it difficult to grow culinary sage (S. officinalis), it thrives in my garden. I have both common types with gray leaves, but I also have a yellow-green variegated form called ‘Aurea’ and ‘Tricolor’ with green, white and purple foliage. I think they are as attractive as they are edible. They have beautiful little purple spines in the spring.
The common gray form is found in poor soil in full sun, spreading more aggressively each year. The others are in a raised grass bed.
Excellent soil drainage is essential for culinary herbs and is well appreciated by almost all saliva plant species.
Salvia plants are rarely attacked by any insects or diseases, and are rarely eaten by deer or rabbits.
Most gardeners choose perennial sage plants in the garden, but old-fashioned annuals now come in colors of red, purple, white and pink. It will bloom all summer long, provided it gets some fertilization and water, and the flowers are deadheaded after blooming.
Deadheading is recommended for most salvia plants to keep them thriving for as long as possible.
There is a salvia for every solar garden because there are so many colors and sizes available. They are versatile and can add color and interest to a spring or summer garden, but many explode with color in the fall, a time when we often need some extra picks in the garden.
Salvia can be propagated by seed or cuttings, and plants are easily divided in spring or fall.
Read Janet Carson’s blog at arkansasonline.com/planitjanet.