Green Thumbs Up: Sensational salvias

Suzanne Mahler

Several days of cool, damp and dreary weather have provided much needed moisture to my parched lawn and gardens.

Along my front walk, a stunning purple and white striped mountain laurel, Kalmia "Bullseye" is putting on a spectacular show despite its dense, moisture laden flower clusters drooping from the persistent weekend drizzle.

Kousa dogwoods light up our landscapes, their arching branches smothered with creamy star-shaped blossoms from top to bottom. While these two plants typically bloom during mid-June, the plump buds of my Stewartia are beginning to unfurl, revealing their waxy, white, camellia-like blooms nearly three weeks earlier than in previous years. Hopefully, this brief stretch of gloomy weather will slow down the rapid progression of this year’s flowering season and prolong the beautiful blooms of June.

As a passionate collector of plants, I am always acquiring and experimenting with new cultivars, eager to explore the wealth and diversity of the wonderful world of perennials. Over the years, iris, daylilies and hostas have been my primary focus, well-known for their diversity and ease of culture, but there are many other plant families that offer a broad range of opportunity.

One genus, the Salvias, commonly known as sages, is less likely to come to mind, but there are hundreds of species, including annuals, perennials, biennials and shrubby varieties, waiting to be discovered by gardeners who have sunny, well-drained sites. Many salvias exhibit spectacular spikes in a broad range of colors; others provide aromatic foliage and may be used for culinary purposes. From edging and bedding plants to specimens 5 feet tall, these diverse plants are magnets for hummingbirds.

Common sage (Salvia officinalis) was among my first successes years ago when I started many of my herbs and perennials from seed. It quickly grew to become a large, gray-green woody shrub, its aromatic leaves a favorite for cooking, and its light purple spires were a pleasant addition to my herb garden. Once plants become woody after several years, it is usually best to replace them.

Decorative, multi-colored selections of S. officinalis are available, including purple-tinted, tricolor, and green and yellow leaves, but I found these to be less winter-hardy. I seek out the deliciously fragrant Pineapple sage (S. elegans) every season to grow in a container on my deck. In addition to its fruity-scented foliage, its small tubular red flowers are irresistible to hummingbirds.

Among the perennial sages, Salvia "May Night" is well-deserving of its past designation as a "perennial plant of the year." Dense, 2-foot violet spires above crinkled green foliage bloom for weeks, and if spent flowers are removed promptly, blooming may continue on and off throughout the season. Full sun and well-drained soils produce large, husky plants.

Other cultivars include S. "Blue Queen" and S. "Blue Hill" demonstrating blue-violet flowers, S. "Snow Hill" with lovely white spires, and the rose-pink S. "Rose Queen."

Several newer introductions have broadened the spectrum of color and habit. Salvia "Caradonna" has become a personal favorite as it boasts slender violet flower spikes with dramatic deep purple stems on dense, upright plants. Look for "Marcus" (violet purple) and "Sensation Rose" (rose pink) for shorter, compact growth.

From slightly different lineage (S. pratensis) come two delightful pink cultivars, "Pink Delight" and "Eveline" that send up dense, 20-inch spikes from a basal rosette in May with recurrent bloom, especially in late summer, if spent flower spikes are removed.

Soft, hairy, wavy leaves characterize the charming Salvia verticillata cultivars. Clusters of lavender or white flowers on arching 12-inch stems bloom throughout the summer when plants are deadheaded on a regular basis. Look for S. "Purple Rain" and S. alba for a delightful display of long-lasting flowers, ideal for hot, dry, sunny locales.

For a dramatic splash of summer color, few annuals rival the spectacular Salvia splendens. A popular bedding plant, perhaps best known for its fiery shades of red, new introductions include salmon, burgundy, lavender, purple and white flowers. Look for the "Bonfire" and "Salsa" series of these colorful plants. Full sun, regular removal of spent flowers and supplemental moisture during dry spells will produce vivid, bushy displays.

Less commonly grown, but among the loveliest of the annual sages are the Scarlet or Texas Sages (S. coccinea) that produce showy delicate 2-foot spikes. Salvia "Lady in Red" and "Hummingbird Forest Fire" exhibit fiery orange-red spires, the latter boasting blackish stems and calyces, while "Coral Nymph" is a bicolor with salmon and white flowers; all are irresistible to hummingbirds and will naturalize throughout the garden from seed in subsequent seasons.

The color blue is well represented in the Salvia family and S. farinacea "Victoria" is a popular source of this color for bedding plants. This hardy annual produces slender spikes of deep blue that blend well with nearly every annual.

Container gardens are the ideal showcase for the showiest of the blue sages including the gentian sage, S. patens ("Oceana Blue" is a recent Proven Winners plant) and S. guaranitica hybrids "Argentina Skies" (sky blue flowers) and "Black and Blue" (deep delphinium blue blooms within a black-tinted calyces). After killing frosts, I have moved these container-grown sages into my unheated garage and most survive, spread and rebloom in subsequent years. Salvia greggii is another excellent candidate for containers with red, fuchsia or salmon blooms on delicate woody stems.

Suzanne Mahler is an avid gardener, photographer and lecturer who has been developing the 1.5-acre property surrounding her home in Hanover, Mass., for more than 30 years. She is a member of two local garden clubs, past President of the New England Daylily Society, an overseer for the Massachusetts Horticultural Society and is employed at two garden centers.