Many flowers are weary of blooming by the time fall arrives. But members of the salvia family not only keep on flowering, they add brilliant new bloomers in the fall, living up to their reputation as one of the most popular and versatile plants.
Salvias, both annual and perennial species, provide so much color and require very little effort. In fact, “salvia is the last annual besides periwinkle to die from drought,” Felder Rushing writes in “Tough Plants for Southern Gardens.”
Sometimes called sage, salvia is the largest genus of plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae) with nearly 1,000 species of shrubs, herbaceous perennials and annuals. One of their characteristics is the square stem. Many have strongly scented foliage.
Salvias offer variety in height and spread (between two and four feet), flower color (scarlet, purple, pink, blue, white or yellow), flowering season and hardiness. Some species may have variable flower colors, such as the native perennial called scarlet salvia that can actually have white, pink or red flowers and is available everywhere in four-packs in the spring. Others such as pineapple sage offer brilliant red blossoms in the fall. Salvias are popular in mass plantings, borders and containers, but especially in cottage gardens where their fast growth quickly provides color and greenery.
Since they come in a rainbow of shades, there is likely a salvia with the perfect flower color for every gardener; and breeders continue to release new salvia cultivars. Flowers are tubular with petals split into two lips, which can be straight or flaring, and make great cut flowers that last several days in a vase.
Since they are heat loving and drought tolerant, maintenance is low and care is easy. They can even tolerate poor clay soil. They are attractive to butterflies and hummingbirds and repulsive to rabbits and deer.
And, with a combination of varieties, gardens can have blooms nonstop from spring until the first frost. They are good companion plants for geraniums, dusty miller, marigolds and other drought-hardy bloomers.
Once blooms begin to fade, don’t be afraid to prune the bush. The result can be a new burst of blooms within a few weeks. Rushing recommends pinching new growth of the taller varieties to make them more compact.
Many are listed as Zone 8-10 plants, but they can grow as tender perennials in our Zone 7. For example, my Mexican bush salvia has grown for years next to a brick wall that gets afternoon sun. A division shared with a friend last year grew three times as large as mine but did not survive winter. So, location may be important in planting some tender perennials.
They are generally easy to propagate from cuttings or seeds.
Black and blue salvia (Salvia guaranitica) is an all-time favorite of many gardeners, including yours truly, not only because it is a hummingbird magnet, but because the blossoms are a rare shade of blue — an old-fashioned cobalt blue that some say is reminiscent of an old Milk of Magnesia bottle. The calyx surrounding the petals is a true black.
A native of Brazil and Paraguay, it gained popularity in the U.S. in the mid 1990s and has been going strong since. Called a subshrub, black and blue gets four to five feet and spreads into a large patch. When crushed, the fresh mint green colored leaves have an anise scent, hence its common name — anise scented sage or blue anise sage.
It is another of those species not considered hardy here but that has thrived and spread — and divisions shared many times — since my sister Rosemary and I discovered it en route to our first Advanced Master Gardener Training at Mountain Home in 2002. We stopped at a nursery outside of Fayetteville and instantly fell in love with this unique blue plant. Since it was July, and the class was two days, we decided to pick up the plants on our way home. In order to get credit for advanced classes, you must attend all sessions and this class continued until 4 p.m. So, we parked our car facing Highway 412 and as soon as we received our certificates, we headed for the nursery, arriving minutes before closing time. It has bloomed every summer until frost.
Among other salvias that thrive here are:
• Victoria blue salvia (Salvia farinacea), an award-winning cultivar dating back to the 1970s, has deep violet blue flowers that grow profusely all summer and is very drought tolerant. It can grow to two feet tall. Some experts recommend pruning the outer branches which will grow fuller and hold the center branches upright.
• Mexican bush salvia (Salvia Lamiaceae) has thin gray-green leaves. From late summer until frost, it produces fuzzy purple or white flowers atop three-foot spikes.
• Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) is a tender perennial that is usually grown for its leaves that smell like fresh pineapple and are a popular flavoring for drinks or as garnish in fruit salads and desserts. Its scarlet flowers appear in September and continue through October or until a hard freeze.
• Autumn sage (Salvia greggii) is shrubby at the base with aromatic foliage all along the stems. Loose spires of dark purple, white, violet, pink or red flowers grow on two- to three-foot stems. Despite its name, it begins flowering in late spring and continues until frost.
• Roseleaf sage (Salvia involucrate) is a shrubby Mexican native that develops purple-red flowers from midsummer to fall. It can grow 5 feet tall. This one returned home with me from last fall’s Master Gardener trip to Mississippi and was overwintered indoors. It is now about three feet tall, and I am waiting for blooms.
• Russian sage (Perovskia) is a deciduous perennial whose tall, airy, spike-like clusters create a lavender-blue cloud of color above the finely textured, aromatic foliage.
In addition to ornamental salvias, there is common sage used in cooking. Chefs favor Berggarten with large silver-gray leaves, Golden sage with chartreuse foliage enhanced by dark green splashes, Purple sage with a purplish cast foliage and Tricolor with white and pink streaks.
American naturalist Henry Beston once wrote: “A garden is the mirror of a mind ... there is something to be sought and something to be found.” We gardeners appreciate your sage word, Mr. Beston.
Next week, the topic will be: a pinch of fairy dust in the garden.
Lucy Fry of Fort Smith is a level 4 Master Gardener and writes the area Master Gardener newsletter. Her column, Gardening for the Record, runs weekly in the Times Record. Send questions to GardeningForTheRecord@gmail.com.