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Gardening 101: Salvia

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Gardening 101: Salvia

May 29, 2019

Salvia, Salvia: “Savior Among Plants”

Ornamental sage, better known as salvia, comes in more than 900 varieties of every size and shape, whether as tender annuals or hardy, herbaceous perennials. What they all have in common is jewel-like color and a predilection for good drainage and heat: in other words they are a gift for gardens in drought.

Photography by Britt Willoughby Dyer, except where noted.

With their intense coloring of petal, calyx, and stem, salvias can lift a garden into something special. They are also good mixers, providing long-flowering verticals that flatter complementary shades of purple, blue and red, while shimmering against textural green.
Above: With their intense coloring of petal, calyx, and stem, salvias can lift a garden into something special. They are also good mixers, providing long-flowering verticals that flatter complementary shades of purple, blue and red, while shimmering against textural green.
Salvia &#8
Above: Salvia ‘Amistad’ is a fairly recent large variety that is highly regarded. Reaching 4 feet high and flowering from May until October, dark stems and calyces of ‘Amistad’ contrast with luminous purple flowers and sizable green leaves. Removing spent flower spikes extends the season.
The names &#8
Above: The names “salvia” and “sage” both come from the Latin “to save,” which refers to the health-giving properties of the culinary and medicinal herb. However it is clearly a garden savior in a decorative sense: for keeping late summer borders alive, and as an important source of nectar for pollinators.

Cheat Sheet

  • Salvias are a huge family, ranging from tender plants with intensely colored flowers to tough, evergreen herbs.
  • They can do elegant or cottage, large or small, in full sun or dappled shade.
  • Common sage (Salvia officinalis) and clary sage (Salvia sclarea) are best known as aromatic plants, with hairy leaves that release oil when rubbed.
Salvia nemorosa &#8
Above: Salvia nemorosa ‘Amethyst’ at Cottesbrooke Hall, Northamptonshire. This ornamental shrub is aromatic, growing to 3 feet. It mixes here with Allium sphaerocephalon, which will gradually turn to dark red in bud, before opening.

Keep It Alive

  • Salvias thrive in arid conditions, appreciating free-draining soil.
  • With regular deadheading, they can flower from late spring until the first frosts.
  • For exposed, coastal areas, Salvia patens is particularly suitable. ‘Blue Angel’ is electric blue, and has an RHS Award of Garden Merit.
Salvia with sweet rocket, in a cottage-y pairing.
Above: Salvia with sweet rocket, in a cottage-y pairing.

Salvia is in the Mentheae family; broadly, it is a type of mint. This makes sense when you look at the structure and aromatic properties of common sage, grown for culinary and medicinal purposes, and clary sage, which is used as an essential oil. Common sage is an all-round life saver and can be drunk as a bitter tea: worth it for a cheap body cleanser or aphrodisiac.

N.B.: Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) is not a true sage though it is a close relation and also a good “doer” in the garden.

Sage goes well with sage, either as a monoculture or with varied spikes of intense blue or crimson. Photograph by Lana Von Haught. For no-fuss color in a Los Angeles courtyard, see: New Glamor for Old Hollywood: A Visit to Howard Hughes&#8
Above: Sage goes well with sage, either as a monoculture or with varied spikes of intense blue or crimson. Photograph by Lana Von Haught. For no-fuss color in a Los Angeles courtyard, see: New Glamor for Old Hollywood: A Visit to Howard Hughes’ Garden.
Culinary or medicinal Salvia officinalis. Photograph by Erin Boyle.
Above: Culinary or medicinal Salvia officinalis. Photograph by Erin Boyle.

Sage can become large and unwieldy in an herb garden and can be better placed among flowers, with its wonderfully textured foliage. Purple and variegated varieties are especially useful.

Beth Chatto grows purple sage with spiky eringium, for contrasting color and texture. See: Required Reading: Beth Chatto’s 5 Favorite Flowers for a Gravel Garden.

Salvias grow as very hardy perennials at altitude, or may need overwintering in a greenhouse in the northern hemisphere. The most exciting varieties to appear in recent years have been New World salvias, such as those bearing the name &#8
Above: Salvias grow as very hardy perennials at altitude, or may need overwintering in a greenhouse in the northern hemisphere. The most exciting varieties to appear in recent years have been New World salvias, such as those bearing the name ‘Dyson’ in the UK.

N.B.: Looking to add to your garden this spring? Our Perennials 101: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design can help:

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