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Salvias: Late-Season Saviors in the Garden

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Salvias: Late-Season Saviors in the Garden

October 8, 2019

Long-blooming salvias are saviors in the autumn garden. So when Gravetye Manor’s head gardener Tom Coward met me in a pair of shorts in October, I might have twigged to the semi-tropical splendor in store for me in Sussex (an hour’s train ride away from London). A second before, I’d stepped out of a 16th-century manor into a low-angled ray of golden sun. Backlit magenta dahlias glowed from the borders and a hot pink haze of salvia surrounded them.

I’d raced to make it to Gravetye before dark, so I barely had dropped my bags and grabbed my notebook before Tom found me blinking, agog, shamefully stumped at the genus level in 40 seconds flat: “What salvia…?”

Here’s a cheat sheet I compiled—with suggestions from both Gravetye and Dyson’s Nursery at the Great Comp Garden in Kent—to help you choose the right Salvia (commonly known as ornamental sage), a warm-climate perennial and a fast-growing annual in colder growing zones, to add color to a late-season border:

Photography by Christin Geall.

Salvia Curviflora

Saturated salvia shines in autumn’s low-angled light. At left, Salvia curviflora at Gravetye, with the dahlia ‘Magenta Star’.
Above: Saturated salvia shines in autumn’s low-angled light. At left, Salvia curviflora at Gravetye, with the dahlia ‘Magenta Star’.

While Tom spoke, I jotted down a list of salvias to plant for late-season color in a border, starting with the cerise wonder I’d swooned over walking out of the manor’s heavy oak door: Salvia curviflora, with a lipstick-perfect trout pout.

Tall and stately Salvia curviflora with Verbena macdougalii ’Lavender Spires’ at Gravetye.
Above: Tall and stately Salvia curviflora with Verbena macdougalii ’Lavender Spires’ at Gravetye.

A native of Mexico, Salvia curviflora has a dramatically curved flower and is a perennial in USDA zones 8 to 11.

Salvia Leucantha

With Salvia curviflora in the double border at Gravetye, fuzzy purple and white Salvia leucantha blooms at right.
Above: With Salvia curviflora in the double border at Gravetye, fuzzy purple and white Salvia leucantha blooms at right.

Commonly known as Mexican bush sage, Salvia Leucantha establishes quickly; a shrub quickly will grow to a height and diameter of 5 feet.

Salvia leucantha
Above: Salvia leucantha

Salvia Confertiflora

Gravetye senior gardener Stuart Lambert carries cuts of the Brazilian native Salvia confertiflora to the house florists.
Above: Gravetye senior gardener Stuart Lambert carries cuts of the Brazilian native Salvia confertiflora to the house florists.

In other borders, Salvia confertiflora towered above tall Tagetes (French marigolds) and the crimson Dahlia ‘Dove Grove’. The confertiflora is a tender but spectacular plant, growing to a height of more than 5 feet in a season.

Coward uses salvias to provide late-season interest in the borders. Their rich colors play well with other strong autumn colors: deep yellows, oranges, and pinks. Their forms, from upright sub-shrubs to smaller edging plants, extend their versatility.

Salvia ‘Phyllis’ Fancy’

Salvia ‘Phyllis&#8
Above: Salvia ‘Phyllis’ Fancy’ at Gravetye with Diascia personata, both flowering into late October.

Named to honor a long-time volunteer at the University of California’s Santa Cruz Arboretum, Salvia ‘Phyllis’ Fancy’ was discovered on the California coast. Probably a cross of Salvia leucantha and Salvia chiapensis, ‘Phyllis Fancy’ flowers are a strong lure for pollinator insects and hummingbirds.

Salvia Involucrata

Salvia involucrata ‘Bethellili’ at Gravetye.
Above: Salvia involucrata ‘Bethellili’ at Gravetye.
Salvia involucrata ‘Bethellili’ at Gravetye.
Above: Salvia involucrata ‘Bethellili’ at Gravetye.

Growing tips from our recent post Gardening 101: Salvias: “Salvias thrive in arid conditions, appreciating free-draining soil,” writes Kendra.
“With regular deadheading, they can flower from late spring until the first frosts.”

Propagate salvias from semi-ripe stems in late summer. These young plants at Gravteye were started from cuttings taken in late August. They will be held in
Above: Propagate salvias from semi-ripe stems in late summer. These young plants at Gravteye were started from cuttings taken in late August. They will be held in 2-liter pots under glass over the winter.

To learn more, I headed to Dyson’s Nursery at the Great Comp Garden in Kent, which specializes in salvias. There, in the hazy mists of autumn, I was struck again at how the singe of salvias cheers.

Salvia ‘Ember’s Wish’

The coral Salvia &#8
Above: The coral Salvia ‘Ember’s Wish’ harmonizes with fall foliage at Dyson’s Nursery in Kent, England.

The Salvia genus contains more than  900 species. The species and cultivars of interest to gardeners (for their long-flowering period and color) generally hail from the southern US, Mexico, and through Central America into Brazil. As such, they are generally tender or half-hardy and require winter protection.

Salvia ‘Love and Wishes’

Salvia ‘Love and Wishes’ at the Great Comp Garden in Kent, England. With burgundy calyces and stems, this salvia is a great choice for a pot or planter given its tidy habit and long-flowering period from June to November.
Above: Salvia ‘Love and Wishes’ at the Great Comp Garden in Kent, England. With burgundy calyces and stems, this salvia is a great choice for a pot or planter given its tidy habit and long-flowering period from June to November.

N.B.: See more ideas to extend the flowering season well into autumn:

Finally, get more ideas on how to successfully plant, grow, and care for salvia with our Salvia: A Field Guide.

Finally, get more ideas on how to plant, grow, and care for various perennial plants with our Perennials: A Field Guide.

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