Written by Steve Brigham
Salvias (genus Salvia) are a huge group of well over a thousand species and cultivated varieties of plants that are native to many temperate and subtropical regions of the world. Ranging from annuals and herbaceous perennials to shrubby perennials and full-on shrubs, nearly all of them are wonderful ornamental plants that are both colorful and easy to grow. In fact, there are many salvias that proudly rank among the most popular new garden plants in the world today.
There is a salvia (or many) for every climate, but Californians (and others in Mediterranean-type climates) in particular have literally hundreds of different salvias for their gardens from which to choose. Salvia comes from the Latin word which means “to heal” or “to save”, and indeed, the ancient Romans knew well the medicinal and culinary herb Sage (Salvia officinalis, which is still very popular today). This amazing and colorful group of plants has also “saved” countless hummingbirds and butterflies – both in the wild and in the garden, salvias are among the most important food plants for our winged friends.
The hundreds of garden salvias that you may encounter in nurseries and catalogs generally fall into one of three categories. The cold-hardy salvias are predominantly herbaceous and shrubby perennials. These are fine outdoors all year in all but the coldest climates. The largest group of salvias are primarily shrubs and shrubby perennials that are often quite drought-tolerant but are cold-hardy only in the relatively mild winters of USDA zones 8-10. A third group of subtropical salvias are showy shrubs that tolerate only mild frosts. Regardless of their cold-tolerance, however, there are many varieties of salvia that are popularly grown as colorful annuals in any climate.
With just a few exceptions, all salvias like sun, good drainage, and regular deep watering. They can sulk in heavy or poorly drained soils, and most do not like cold wet winters. In general, salvias do not need to be pruned except in late winter or early spring, when they may be shaped or even cut back heavily to promote fresh new growth and flowers. Many salvias can bloom almost continuously during the growing season in some climates, and others are more seasonal in their bloom, taking time off in very hot or cold weather. All salvias have pleasantly aromatic foliage, with many tubular to flaring flowers in bright shades of red, orange, blue, purple, pink, with a few yellows and whites as well. Their diversity in both foliage and flower, plus the fact that they are easy to propagate and grow, has made many gardeners into “salvia nuts” over the years!
Some of the more popular salvias:
Salvia leucantha - Mexican Bush Sage
Native to central and eastern Mexico, Salvia leucantha is a vigorous, shrubby sage that blooms with long velvety clusters of white and purple flowers atop a handsome foliage of long, gray-green leaves. It is fast and easy in full sun or light shade in climates where frosts are not severe, where it grows quickly to 3-4 feet tall and wide and blooms from fall through spring. It can also grow in colder areas with occasional (but not prolonged) temperatures as low as 15 degrees F., where it freezes back but sprouts from the base again in spring. In addition to the original species form, three popular cultivars are: ‘Midnight’, with all-purple flowers, ‘Santa Barbara’, with more compact growth, and ‘Eder’, with cream-variegated foliage.
All varieties of Mexican Bush Sage benefit from hard pruning (remove last year’s stems) in late winter or early spring, which promotes new flowering growth. They need only moderate watering and fertilizing, and prefer well-drained (not soggy) soils. Insect pests seldom bother these plants, and their flowers attract hummingbirds in abundance.