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.
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.)
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.
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 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:
• 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.
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.
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.