Whether used for attractive, aromatic foliage or for vibrantly coloured flowers, there’s a salvia that's just right for your garden.
The salvia family, also known as sage, is a well known and appreciated plant in both the flower and herb garden. All salvias are easy to grow and have a long flowering season from late spring to early autumn. The most important thing to remember about salvias is that they all need good drainage in order to flourish, and cannot grow in waterlogged soil. Although many will grow in poor, sandy soil, plenty of compost in the planting hole produces the best results.
The South African salvias commonly used in gardens are all water smart plants:
- Blue flowered sage (Salvia africana-caerulea) grows to 2m and bears blue flowers. The foliage is aromatic. Plant in full sun and prune in winter.
- Light blue sage (Salvia chamelaeagnea) is a water smart sprawling 1,5m tall shrub with soft, light-green leaves and spikes of pale blue flowers. A white-flowered variety is also available. Plant in full sun. Prune the plant to keep it neat.
- Beach sage or golden salvia (Salvia africana-lutea) is water smart 1,5m tall shrub with grey foliage. It bears yellow blooms which fade to brick-red and then brown. Plant in full sun and prune to keep it neat. It is tolerant of coastal conditions.
- Red sage (Salvia lanceolata) is an upright grey-leafed 75cm tall shrub with yellow to burnt red flowers. Plant in full sun.
- Woolly leafed sage (Salvia dolomitica) has a height and spread of 1,5m. The dark maroon flower bracts are striking against the pale lilac flowers, and the grey foliage is aromatic. Plant in full sun.
- Blue eyes (Salvia muirii) is a 50cm tall shrub with pretty blue and white flowers. Plant in full sun.
Water wise salvias
Salvias from the dry parts of Mexico are invaluable for a low water usage border:
- Autumn sage (Salvia greggii) is a frost tolerant, 1m-tall shrub that bears rosy-red flowers and bracts from spring through to autumn. Plant in full sun and prune to shape after flowering. Many smaller cultivars are now available. Look out for:
- ‘Neon Pink’ with deep pink blooms, 50cm tall.
- ‘Red Surprise’ with cerise-pink flowers, 50cm tall.
- ‘Salmon Smoothy’ with soft salmon blooms, 50cm tall.
- ‘Sweet Lips’ with pink blooms, 50cm tall.
- Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) grows into 1,5m-tall clumps with spikes of woolly, purple bracts and mauve-white flowers all summer long. The cultivar ‘Midnight’ has purple flowers, and there are also white- and pink-bloomed cultivars. Plant in full sun and allow space for it to spread. It can withstand drought, but not heavy frost. Cut back old flower stems in spring to allow new growth room to develop.
- Canary Island sage (Salvia canariensis) can reach a height and spread of 2m. It has attractive grey-green leaves and trusses of rose-red flowers at the ends of long arching branches. Prune back by two-thirds after flowering to produce another show in autumn. Plant this frost tolerant shrub in full sun.
- Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii) is an evergreen shrub with flowers ranging from lavender to blue. It grows to1,5m with a 2m spread. The grey-green leaves have intense fragrance. It likes sun and perfect drainage and tolerates frost.
The bracts of some salvias make for an outstanding display:
- Salvia splendens and Salvia coccinea and their hybrids, are the mainstays of bedding salvias. They are especially valuable in summer and autumn gardens for their heat-resistance, and their ability to grow in full sun or partial shade. New shades of cream, salmon, pink, wine, lavender and purple are often easier to place among other flowers than the fire-engine red hybrid.
- Mealy-cup sage (Salvia farinacea) is a 30cm tall summer-flowering perennial from Mexico that is usually planted as an annual. The erect stems bear many flowers in white, light or dark blue, similar to lavender spikes. The cultivar 'Victoria Blue' is a popular choice for containers, borders and annual bedding. ‘Cirrus’ is white bloomed cultivar, while blue-bloomed ‘Mystic Spires’ grows to 60cm. Plant in full sun.
- Clary sage (Salvia sclarea var. turkestanica) has large soft leaves and tall stems of cream and lilac-pink flowers and bracts, and reaches a height of 1,5m. In the first year, this biennial produces heart-shaped downy light grey leaves. These grow in a rosette, close to the ground. The following spring, tall-branched spikes of flowers and showy, long-lasting bracts appear. Frost-tolerant clary sage does best in a position in full sun but sheltered from wind.
If you become enamoured of salvias, the following less common salvias are available at specialist nurseries: bog sage (Salvia uliginosa), gentian salvia (Salvia patens), Brazilian sage (Salvia guaranitica), prairie sage (Salvia azurea), Salvia rubiginosa and Salvia transsylvanica, all with blue or indigo blooms; fuchsia sage (Salvia buchananii), Salvia guaranitica and Salvia ‘Marachino Red’ with magenta blooms; Jupiter’s distaff (Salvia glutinosa) with yellow blooms; and Andean Sage (Salvia discolor) with purple-black blooms that protrude beyond the silvery green calyxes.