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Salvias: Solutions for Demanding Gardeners

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I admit to becoming quite a demanding gardener. Darn it-for all the time and energy I spend trying to make my garden looks its best (and mostly not succeeding), I think it owes me a good show for at least a couple of seasons! I have found my garden will appease me with salvias, the largest genus of plants in the mint family Lamiaceae. There is a plethora of salvias available-about 900 species to pick from.

All sages are salvias and some people use the common term sage for all of the salvias. They range from shrubs, sub-shrubs, perennials, and annuals to biennials. Some are herbaceous: plants with non-woody stems that die back in winter in the cold zones. The herbaceous perennials will sprout from the base again in early spring.

Some pruning is required to remove dead foliage and spent blooms, usually in late winter or after it is done blooming. Light pruning during the growing season will help maintain a good shape and reasonable size. They perform better with well drained soil, but many of the tougher salvias tolerate our clay soil.

There are a number of characteristics that make salvias an excellent choice. The majority of them are low maintenance once established. They bloom in a wide range of textures, color and interesting foliage-which may be aromatic and enjoyable all by itself. You can plant salvias that bloom in different seasons: spring, summer and into late fall. They tend to be heat and drought tolerant once established. Most are very deer resistant (although I have noted a couple that are not very deer resistant in my specific location). And here’s the part I love: most of them are incredible hummingbird, bee and butterfly magnets!

Below are 11 salvias that are tried and true, many of them favorites of our local Master Gardeners who grow them here in Tuolumne County:

  • Salvia elegans – Pineapple sage: Fast growing, up to 3′- 4′ feet tall and wide, blooms profusely with bright scarlet tubular flowers late summer through fall, yellow/green pineapple scented foliage. Can be used as a culinary herb.
  • Salvia clevelandii – Cleveland sage: Tough, very drought tolerant California native shrub, rounded habit, 3′ to 5′ tall and wide, blooms blue-violet flowers held in whorls spring through early summer, very aromatic foliage.
  • Salvia greggii – Autumn sage: Dense shrub, 2′ to 4′ tall and wide, large range of colors (commonly red), very drought tolerant. Large selection – it makes up a third of salvia varieties.
  • Salvia spathacea – Hummingbird sage: Good ground cover, 2′ tall and up to 4′ – 5′ wide, blooms in spring/early summer, magenta colored flowers on 1′ – 2′ stalks. Drought and shade tolerant enough to grow under oaks.
  • Salvia ‘Bees Bliss’ – Hybrid California native, trailing, low-growing habit, about 2′ tall up to 6′ wide, great groundcover on dry slopes. Whorls of lavender flowers in spring and into summer.
  • Salvia microphylla – Small shrub, resembles Salvia greggii, up to 3′ tall and 3′ wide, ‘hot lips’ is a stunning bi-color cultivar with bright red tips and white lips.
  • Salvia guaranitica – Blue anise sage: Between 2′ to 4′ tall and wide, fairly fast growing, blooms all summer long, “black and blue” has vivid cobalt blue and black blooms. Needs a little more shade and water here than most salvias.
  • Salvia x jamensis – Hybrid of Salvia greggii and Salvia microphylla, blooms summer to fall, ‘Sierra San Antonio’ has yellow and red bi-colored blooms.
  • Salvia leucantha – Mexican bush sage: Between 3′ to 5′ tall and wide, prolific and long blooming, tall and fuzzy purple and white blooms, great late summer and fall color. Not very deer resistant for me.
  • Salvia nemorosa ‘Mainacht’ – Maynight Salvia: Easy to grow, award winner, clump forming habit, about 1.5′ tall and wide, spikes of deep blue-purple flowers, summer blooming. Not very deer resistant in my yard, which is unusual.
  • Salvia officinalis – common sage/tri-color sage: Approximately 2′ tall and wide, intensely aromatic, woolly, gray-green or variegated leaves, used as culinary sage – good both fresh and dried.

This list doesn’t even come close to including all the salvias I recommend you try. You’ll find at least a few salvia work horses that meet your needs. You may even find yourself hooked on salvias, like me!

Kathy Nunes works constantly to increase the deer resistance and decrease the water use of her garden.