If you’re looking for plants that flower all year round with the minimum of care, then read on. There are over 500 members of the salvia family and all of them are sensational in the sun.
Salvias are classified as annuals, biennials, perennials and herbaceous shrubs. They are rugged plants which grow equally well in rubbly clay or friable loam, providing they are well drained. They is over 500 species of Salvias from edible sages (S. officinalis) and small to large shrubs up to 3m high. There is a Salvia to suit any climate, season and garden style. Most Salivas show off their flowers best in spring through to autumn.
Salvias can easily be propagated by either sowing seeds (for annual types) or by taking cuttings or dividing old clumps (for biennial, perennial and herbaceous types).
Planting and care of Salvias
Plant salivas en masse for a stunning display of colour in garden beds or use the smaller more compact varieties for pot displays around patios and entertainment areas. Most love a full sun position and well drained soil. Mix into soil before planting 5in1 Organic Plant Food for strong healthy foliage and flower display. An occasional application of soluble fertiliser, such as Searles Flourish Soluble Plant Food will keep the plants flowering optimally, although too much nitrogenous food will result in excess foliage at the expense of flowers.
They are tolerant of moderate droughts although in poor soils it is a good idea to protect their roots with mulch during prolonged periods of hot and dry weather.
Annual and perennial varieties can be pruned after flowering to remove spent flowers and reproportion top heavy plants, while the larger shrubby types should be cut to approximately 45cm from the ground in autumn, after which they will produce fresh new growth almost immediately.
Varieties of Salvias
The most flamboyant and well-known of all the salvias is the red bedding variety Salvia splendens, with cultivar names such as ‘Blaze of Fire’, ‘Fireball’ and ‘Bonfire’. Like most of the showiest garden plants it hails from Brazil and in Australia it epitomises tropical and subtropical gardening. Salvia splendens grows to approximately 45cm high and although often cultivated as an annual can be treated as a perennial in all but the coldest climates. Its large flower spikes appear year-round, especially if the old ones are removed as they fade. Salvia splendens and cultivars self-seed prolifically which is useful if you want to bulk up your stock for free or if you need to replace tatty old plants. It is one of the few salvias that performs equally well in sun and shade.
Some newer varieties like Salvia ‘Heatwave‘ and ‘Wish’ Collection are more compact with a more rounded canopy and love flowering through the warmer months which make them perfect for small gardens and pots positioned on patios during the festive season.
You would need about ten blue salvias to rival one red one, as the parent of the blue group of salvias, S. farinacea, is a much more slender and discrete plant than its red cousin. Cultivar names like ‘Blue Night’, ‘Blue Bedder’ and ‘Touch of Blue’ describe the wide variety of shades this delightful species displays. Some varieties sport blue stems, and because S. farinacea is the best in the genus for flower arranging, they can be used to great effect in posie arrangements. Salvia farinacea has also been hybridised to produce cream, white and blue/white flowers, all of which contrast well with the species’ characteristic greyish-green foliage. This group of salvias needs cutting back to ground level in autumn when flowering has finished and the stems have turned lank and woody. Mark the clump with a stake as the new growth sometimes takes a few weeks to appear.
Wintering flowering varieties
Finally, a plant that not only provides bright colour, but as a bonus, brings with it a delightful perfume to the garden should also be considered. Salvia dorisiana ‘Fruity Sage’ is a winter flowering salvia that is a delight to the senses on both levels. The hot pink blooms that appear from late June until early October are a true bright spark in the garden and are relished by honeyeaters of all kinds. The perfume however is emitted from the large, furry (evergreen) foliage and smells reminiscent of fruit salad which gives rise to its other common name of ‘Fruit salad sage’. This species of salvia is happiest in partial shade with moisture retentive soil. Strong pruning is recommended at the end of its flowering season when it will recover extremely quickly by putting on lush new growth.
Many salvias have unusual foliage such as S. officinalis ‘Tricolor’ with pinkish cream and grey variegations, or S. officinalis ‘Purpurea Variegata’ with dark purple leaves.
The stems and underleaves of the Mexican bush sage, S. leucantha, are almost pure white and softly hairy, and offset the purple and white woolly flowers to excellent effect.
Salvia flowers come in a rainbow of violets, yellows, maroon, pinks, purples, blues, whites, creams and greens. As if this isn’t enough, some salvias such as S. ‘Black Knight’ develop persistent calyces which are as colourful, if not more so, than the flowers they support, lending a lively two-tone effect to the plant.
Medieval gourmets discovered that Salvia officinalis, commonly known as garden sage, was a multi-purpose culinary plant. It teamed up superbly with meats and was the main ingredient in stuffings when combined with parsley, rosemary and thyme. It was often used as a digestive aid for fattier cuts such as goose and pork. Its pungent flavour also spices up soups, stews, salads, pates, smallgoods and cheeses and the dry leaves can be infused into a relaxing tea.
If you keep bees, S. officinalis provides a happy grazing ground of powder-blue flowers for weeks, and the resulting honey will be delightfully piquant. In fact the labiate design of the salvia flower includes a bottom lip which makes a perfect landing pad for bees. Some salvias like S. bulleyana, even have flowers which closely resemble bees in an effort to encourage pollination and fertilisation.
Salvias for soggy sites
Most salvias resent wet feet but one – S. uliginosa, revels in the soggy conditions that give rise to its common name of bog sage. This is a particularly graceful variety, sprinkled with a waft of sky blue flowers on long wands that sway in summer breezes. But be warned, its delicate appearance belies a ferocious system of fleshy underground stolons that can become a menace if allowed to spread unchecked.
Name of Origin
Salvia comes from the Latin salvare, a reference to the plant’s ability to heal. Ancient herbalists used various species of sage to cure anything from snake bites to epilepsy. S. sclarea ‘Clary sage’ derives its common name from its reputed ability to improve vision. More recently S. officinalis has become popular as a natural antiseptic and mouthwash for sore throats and gum disorders. Sage wine was administered as a soothing tonic for body and mind while sage beer was notoriously intoxicating.
Salvias are fast gaining a reputation for variety, value and versatility. If you’ve got a sunny spot, why not give them a go?