Between the Rows: Salvia
Right now, I have two sage plants in my herb garden right in front of our house. I have a Salvia officinalis plant that has survived several winters and a brand-new meadow sage, Salvia verticillata Evelina. I have since learned that there is a showier S. verticillata named Purple Rain with deep purple flowers. Soon, I will add two or three six packs of the annual Victoria Blue salvia, which I use as a kind of faux lavender hedge around the roses in the Shed Bed.
The salvias are a very large family of flowers. They are very easy to grow, usually requiring only a sunny site, though they can tolerate some shade, and fertile well-drained soil. They are sturdy and require little care.
I used to think all salvias were blue, but there are salvias in shades of white, red, purple, yellow, pink, and bicolor salvias. Many are perennials, but some familiar salvias are treated as annuals in our climate. Some grow low and creeping and a few, like the deep pink and white Hot Lips, act like vines even though they do not have tendrils to hold them up.
Sage has been an important plant for centuries. The naturalist and historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 CE) first named these plants salvia because they were thought to have great medicinal properties. The medicinal Salvia officinalis is the culinary sage I have in my garden. It was thought to retard aging, preserving the memory, as well as relieving depression. Sage tea has been used to aid digestion. In fact, I have read that sage is included in stuffings, not only because it is so flavorful but because it is a digestive aid.
People don’t use sage much medicinally any more, but it is a basic of the pantry. I use sage in stuffings and sometimes in a sauteed apple, onion and sage side dish to go with pork or chicken, as well as many other dishes. I pick the leaves fresh, as I need them, beginning in May and going into the fall. In late August or September, I trim the shrubby plant and put those leafy trimmings in a paper bag to dry out in our hot attic space. When dry, they can be stored in glass jars.
Beyond its culinary and medicinal uses, the large perennial salvia family has many cultivars that are beautiful in the flower garden. May Night is popular in our area, partly because it is hardy, but also because the 18 to 24 inch spikes of deep blue begin to bloom in June and continue all summer. Rose Queen is similar, slightly shorter, with rose pink flower spikes. Plumosa is another rosy salvia, but the 18 inch flower spikes are plume-y, which makes it very unusual.
Wild Thing, a Salvia greggii, is more tender, but this autumn sage produces cherry red flowers with purple calyxes. It is a stunner and very attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies.
Equally tender is S. guarantica Black & Blue, which bears cobalt blue flowers on black stems. It is much taller than Wild Thing, reaching a height between 3 and 5 feet. They will probably not overwinter, but I always think that if you like a tender perennial like this it is worth trying as an annual. Sometimes you will get a surprise if it comes back the following spring.
Hot Lips is a graceful white and pink bicolor salvia. I saw it growing along the fence at the Smith College Botanical Garden, weaving itself among the other perennials in that ornamental bed.
Madeline is similar to Hot Lips because it has a bicolor flower, but it’s blue and white.
While salvias are drought resistant, one type, Salvia uliginosa, aptly called the bog salvia, does prefer damp spots. It is tall and can reach a height of 6 feet. It is a handsome plant and has become more popular. Given damp conditions, it will send out underground runners and is easy to divide. It will grow in drier conditions if given a good humusy soil, but it will not grow as large, or spread as energetically. Like other perennial salvias, it should be cut down to the ground when you put the garden to bed.
For those who like to start their own plants from seed, Summer Jewel Red was an All-America Selections winner in 2011 while Summer Jewel Pink was a winner in 2012. AAS winners are chosen after being tested in different parts of the country to find the best and most dependable new plants. When gardeners see the AAS logo on a seed packet they can be assured that they are getting quality seed of a quality plant.
Salvias are such a large family, with so many popular cultivars that it is not difficult to find a good selection of plants at local garden centers, through catalogs, or at the seed rack.
Pat Leuchtman, who is The Recorder’s garden columnist, has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980. Readers can leave comments at her Web site: www.commonweeder.com.