Different Salvias and Sages and How to Grow These Summer Plants

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Have you met salvia? Image by Decoded Plants, all rights reserved.

The genus of Salvia is so large that it incorporates annuals, perennials, woody shrubs, and culinary herbs; it is easy to find at least one variety for as many different kinds of gardens as there are species and related cousins.

A member of the mint family, Salvia is the largest genus with a wide range of species.

Salvias are grown for their pretty flowers, scented leaves or attractiveness to pollinators, which will flock to these plants in your garden.

Salvia 'Burgundy Candles'

Salvia ‘Burgundy Candles’ is a perennial meadow sage. Copyright image by Chris Eirschele, all rights reserved.

Identifying Salvia and Sage Similarities

Gardeners identify salvia plants through their similar characteristics. The leaves set opposite to each other on the stem, which has a square “feel.”

The leaf features a serrated edge, in varying degrees depending on the species. In horticultural parlance, the leaf’s form is ovate to lancelolate, an oblong shape relative to the size of each variety, but all with a pointy tip.

For a study in contrasts, observe the fat leaf of silver sage and the narrower leaf on a Victoria Blue cultivar (cultivars, or cultivated varieties, are propagation-produced plants with garden-enhancing characteristics.)

Salvia argentea

Silver sage grew in southern Ohio as an annual for its foliage, not for flowers or to pet its rough leaves. Copyright image by Chris Eirschele, all rights reserved.

The leaves and stems of salvias are all covered with a degree of pubescence (short hairs) and have a rough texture.

In identifying a salvia or sage, you will notice that its flower is a terminal spike that shoots up from the apex, where a leaf joins the stem.

Salvias flower better in full sun and need routine watering to get established. Salvia plants thrive in a well-draining soil. Professionals may characterize many types of salvia as perennials, but gardeners often treat them as annuals if they live in cooler locations.

Salvia 'Victoria Blue'

You will like Salvia ‘Victoria Blue’ for its flowers whose cool color will be pretty against yellow or orange in a garden. Copyright image by Chris Eirschele, all rights reserved.

Perennial Salvia Plants

Salvia nemorosa is a meadow sage; one of the more popular of these perennials is May Night, a Perennial Plant winner in 1997. Gardeners love its indigo blue flowers, its clumping habit, and that it grows well in northern gardens.

S. nemorosa ‘Blue Candles,’ which grows 26” – 28” tall, and S. nemorosa ‘Caradonna,’ are both hardy in zones 4 – 9. Professional gardeners often combine S. nemorosa with other species to create a hybrid like S. x sylvestris ‘Blue Hill.’

Perennial salvia does need cutting back when you see the plant’s center open in the middle and the stems start to look leggy; cut stems back to the plant’s base near the ground. Gardeners also dig up and divide salvia perennials in the spring. Salvia greggii ‘Wild Thing’ is an autumn sage that will tolerate part shade, but needs the warmer weather of zone 7 – 9 to thrive if you want to grow it as a perennial.

Salvia 'Mystic Spires'

Salvia ‘Mystic Spires,’ a hybrid of Mexican sages, retains the textured and wide pointy leaf. Copyright image by Chris Eirschele, all rights reserved.

Salvia argentea is also known as silver sage. Classified as a biennial, silver sage will survive as a short-lived perennial if you remove the flower spike early in the season. Gardeners like silver sage for its gray-green coloring and leaf size so unusual from other salvias. The leaves look soft to the touch from a distance but its sharp hairs discourage hugging. Silver sage is best for gardens in zones 5 – 8.

Annual Salvia Flowers for Only One Summer

Gardeners refer to salvia plants grown for just the summer as annuals; as a tender perennial they thrive over more than one growing season but need a warmer climate. The range of Salvia species offers gardeners a variety of cultivars and colors to spice up their gardens:

Summer Jewel Pink

Salvia ‘Summer Jewel Pink’ is in an annual flower series that includes Red. Copyright image by Chris Eirschele, all rights reserved.

• S. splendens is commonly called scarlet sage and grown for its red flowers.
• S. guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ has black stems and blue flowers.
• S. coccinea ‘Summer Jewel Red’ was a 2011 All-America Selections bedding plant award winner.
• S. farinacea, also known  as mealy cup sage, is the species of notable cultivars like Victoria Blue and Strata, which has light blue and white coloring.

If you like starting plants from seed, salvias are a good choice, although two diseases affect them. The cold or wet in spring encourages “damping off.” When planting seedlings in the garden, be sure to generously space out transplants that are ready for outside as salvias need good air circulation to discourage powdery mildew.

Herb sage

Herb sages are easy to find and grow and inexpensive to use to fill an empty space in any garden. Copyright image by Chris Eirschele, all rights reserved.

Culinary Herb Sage Used for Cooking and Fragrance

Common sage (Salvia officinalis) and pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) are grown in herb or culinary gardens or mixed into vegetable gardens. Herb sages are most used for their scented leaves, though ornamental and economical value is found among its cultivars, too.

Salvia officinalis ‘Tricolor’ and cultivars of Berggarten, Purpurea, and Aurea, which has green and yellow leaves, offer a variety of colored leaves to dress up any kind of garden.

These plants are tough enough to grow outside in northern gardens, up to zone 4. Pineapple sage is less hardy, though valuable in an herb garden as a tall annual plant.

Sages and lemon grass.

Tall pineapple sage (fr.) and lemon grass (bk.) with tricolor sage (ct. l.) Copyright image by Chris Eirschele, all rights reserved.

The pineapple sage plants produce bright red flowers which attract hummingbirds.

Salvias and Sages in a Garden

Salvias and sages make good plants, whether your garden is on a small city lot, out on an urban balcony or in the countryside tucked into a corner of a large landscape. The salvias that produce a lot of flowers are good for butterfly and hummingbird gardens during the middle of summer.

The sages grown for fragrant leaves will add to any style of scented garden you can imagine.

Salvias and sages are not favored by deer; the rough texture and the smell we love from the plants are not generally sought after by wildlife. People visiting your garden, however, will appreciate whatever form of Salvia they find.

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  1. Pingback: Turf N Tree

  2. Hi Chris: I have two very healthy pink summer jewel salvias in pots. They have exploded in growth, but the buds dry up before they flower. It’s been very hot in So CA into the 90’s and low 100’s. I keep them moist and in partial shade. Use Miracle Grow potting soil and Bloom Booster. Could the plants be getting too much
    Nitrogen? Would appreciate your help. I want to see those beautiful pink blooms.

    Thanks So Much

  3. Hello Bronwyn:

    Pink summer jewel salvias (Salvia coccinea) is usually treated as a summer annual, though it is hardy in zones 9 – 10. I grew mine in my fall garden last year and they bloomed well, though I do live in a low desert environment and prefer growing my “summer” annual plants in later fall.

    No matter where, salvias like full sun and tolerate hot weather. But, they do require regular watering and good nutrition to flower.

    You describe your plants as “healthy, exploded in growth.” Depending on the numbers on your box of fertilizer, it does sound as though the plants have been over fed with nitrogen. Containerized plants do need more fertilizer as washing out happens with repeated waterings, but if the numbers are out of balance you may get a lot of green and less/no flowers.

    Also, at times of high temperatures, when plants shut down/slow down to store energy, excessive nutrition is unnecessary. I tend to be cautious about how much fertilizer I use. IMO, there is a point at which “getting annuals to bloom” in weather hotter than usual in a region may not be forced.

    One more consideration. Did you check the roots in your containers? Are the plants root-bound? If the foliage is full, perhaps the roots grew out, too. It is possible the roots were not getting enough water or able to keep up in the high temperatures.

    I hope this helps. Salvias are a wonderful group of plants to choose from and plant in every kind of garden..

  4. hi, i have a salvia plant sold to me as splendens, it doesnt grow very big and has light purple flowers. im wondering if this is splendens. also there is something growing out of it that has much longer leaves compared to the “splendens”, it also has little green miniature flowers that turn brown, im wondering if thats a weed, i can send pictures if needed, thank you

    • Hi Brandon:
      Splendens, written in lower case, is one of the many species of Salvia. The popular plants are sold in red, pink or white. I am not familiar with a light purple variety of Salvia splendens. It is possible plants tags were switched at the garden center where you purchased your plant, which is not so unusual.

      The “hitch-hiker” plant you found growing with it, I would treat as a weed. I would discard it.

      No matter the color of the salvia flower, I would still enjoy the plant. Salvias never fail to bring beauty to a garden.