I’ve been wondering lately if, as gardeners, we haven’t forgotten about the sages. If there is a plant that is as easy to grow, that attracts as many hummingbirds and butterflies, that can waft a scent like pineapple through the entire landscape while making its way into our kitchen, I’d like to know about it.
Salvias do all that with color and style, yet we don’t see them planted as we used to.
Salvias occur naturally on many continents, from Europe to Western Asia to North and South America, plus Africa, according to Betsy Clebsch, who wrote the go-to book of sages, “The New Book of Salvias,” still available from Timber Press. Clebsch describes hundreds of sages in 344 pages that include photographs.
I like the back of the book where she groups salvias into flowers by season, shade lovers and sun lovers and water-wise kinds, and lists those grown for foliage and not so much the flowers.
I only grow two: Salvia clevelandii, which gives my garden a “California” smell, and the culinary sage, Salvia officinalis. I’ve grown many more. One I miss is Salvia uliginosa, which wasn’t ugly at all, but a bog sage with true sky-blue blossoms, a color that is hard to find in the flower world.
One of my favorite people of all time, Pliny the Elder, mentioned salvia in his early encyclopedia, “Natural History.” It was probably Salvia officinalis, since Pliny was interested in household remedies and edible plants. Salvia, in Latin, means “to heal.”
With every size, shape and color imaginable, all salvias belong to the mint family, and all mints have square stems. Curious if a plant is truly a sage? Roll a piece of the stem between your fingers. If the stem is square, you’ve got your answer.
Salvias tend to get woody after a while and dislike a hard pruning back to the wood. When a sage is too large for its allotted space in your landscape and ready for a serious whacking back, it is probably better to start over with a new plant.
This isn’t as expensive as it sounds, since salvias are notoriously easy to root from cuttings.
On the whole (but not always in the case of bog sage), salvias will want full sun, fast drainage and to live a little on the dry side. They’re not overly fond of moisture during the winter, and if you have problems, you’ll find them where soils are overly wet.
You can find many forms of salvia, from annuals to perennials and shrubs. Colors lean to reds, pinks and blues with an occasional yellow in the mix.
A favorite for beginners is Salvia microphylla “Hot Lips,” a bright red and white flowering shrub with a mint-scented leaves. Too much water can do this one in.
Salvia argentea, the silver sage, is a new darling for foliage lovers. This biennial lives for two years, not long for a landscape plant. Allow it to go to seed and it will quickly die back. But the bonus is it is easy to start from seed. Feel free to propagate more plants to replace those that die back.
If you love the smell of our native chaparral, try Salvia clevelandii, a large gray shrub whose scent drifts easily on the wind. It’s not the most attractive plant – I grow it only for its fragrance – so feel free to disguise it behind other shrubs in a sunny spot.
Salvia elegans, or pineapple sage, is a favorite among gardeners not only for its scent, but to flavor teas and other cold drinks.
Culinary sage comes in many forms. Salvia officinalis can be planted in purple and green, a green and yellow variegated, or all gray and fuzzy plants like the famous “Berggarten” cultivar popular with cooks.
Salvia sclarea, or Clary sage, is used in perfumes and potpourri, while smudge sticks or sage wands are traditionally made with our native white sage and used by Native Americans to bless people and places.
Starting salvia from cuttings is super easy, and these plants root within weeks. Follow these directions: