One of the most diverse and useful groups of plants for summer color must be the sages – botanically known as the Salvias. Native to many places in the world, including Texas, salvias have become a staple for garden designers creating long-lasting colorful beds. Garden-worthy salvias range from Texas-tough perennials to tender annuals that have been extensively bred for the bedding plant industry. Colors take on the rainbow, from purple to red, with blues, whites, and even yellow.
Salvias are in the mint family, all of which have a characteristic square stem. And many are strongly scented, including common culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) and pineapple sage (S. elegans). Flowers of many varieties are borne on flower spikes held above the foliage. Most salvias, whether red or blue, are very attractive to hummingbirds and butterflies.
Salvias are hot weather plants, most preferring full sun for best performance. Many salvias bloom non-stop from spring through first frost. This characteristic can be problematic to shy gardeners who would like to shear back large clumps, but can’t bring themselves to remove those bright scattered blooms. But, an occasional shearing is recommended to keep most varieties more compact, resulting in a new burst of heavy blooming in just a few weeks or less.
Many of the native perennial Salvia species are drought tolerant once established, but most will need regular water to look their best. However, do not over-water or over-fertilize, or floppy plants will result.
Here is some sage advice about a few of the more common and popular salvias to consider for your garden.
Mealy-cup or blue sage (Salvia farinacea). A South and Central Texas native with spikes of blue flowers that bloom all summer, growing about 3 feet tall. Like many salvias, it looks best if cut back once or twice during the summer.
‘Henry Duelberg’ is a Texas Superstar variety, selected by Greg Grant for its bluer and more floriferous flowers and larger and greener leaves than other modern cultivars. Grant also introduced ‘Augusta Duelberg’, a white selection, both found near gravestones bearing the same names. Blue sage is not preferred by deer and does best in full sun.
Autumn sage (S. greggii) – Another native saliva to southwestern Texas and Mexico, Autumn sage is really misnamed because it blooms spring through fall. While most perennial salvias are herbaceous perennials, freezing to the ground each winter and returning from the roots, Autumn sage is partly evergreen and semi-woody. Growing about 3 feet tall, one or two shearings will keep it compact and flowering. Autumn sage needs full sun and excellent drainage to do best, and is very drought tolerant. Flowers colors include the most common red form, plus white, pink, rose, purple and orange.
Indigo Spires – This hybrid salvia makes a large, rounded bush covered with long spikes of deep blue flowers. Hardy over most winters, Indigo Spires makes a great background plant in the mixed border. Give it plenty of room because it quickly grows to 4 or more feet tall and wide. A newer, shorter hybrid is ‘Mystic Spires Blue’, but it still gets about 3 to 4 feet tall in good soil. Give both types “haircuts” in early summer to help prevent flopping.
Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha) – Unlike other Salvias discussed up to now, Mexican Bush Sage blooms only in the fall, with an occasional scattered bloom in late spring. The plant is attractive even when not covered in long spikes of rosy purple spikes with tiny white flowers late summer through first frost. An all purple variety is also available. The long shoots with grey-green leaves arch slightly, giving a graceful appearance. Mexican Bush Sage is hardy most winters, if given a mulch for protection and stems are not cut back until spring. ‘Santa Barbara’ is a more compact variety.
Texas Sage (S. coccinea) – Texas Sage grows about 2 to 3 feet tall and is treated as an annual, though it does reseed freely. The red form is most common, with pink and white selections available. A few years ago, ‘Lady in Red’ was chosen as an All-America Selections Winner because it is lower growing with larger, brighter red flowers. Many other varieties are available.
Brazilian Sage or Anise Sage (S. guaranitica) – Bearing beautiful, dark, electric blue, long, tubular flowers mid-summer through fall, this beautiful perennial deserves a spot among your flowers. There are several named varieties for this tough plant, including ‘Black and Blue’ that sports black calyces and dark blue flowers. This sage also tolerates some afternoon shade, making it a versatile plant for the flower garden. Be aware that it does spread through underground runners, so give it room to roam, or be ready to pull it in unwanted areas.
Pineapple Sage (S. elegans) – This tender perennial performs a dual function giving beauty with its long, bright red tubular flowers, and its fragrant leaves which can be used in salads, drinks and potpourii. The ‘Golden Delicious’ variety has chartreuse foliage which makes the bright red flowers really stand out.
Scarlet Sage – (S. splendens) – a popular bedding plant useful for introducing bright color to the garden. Many varieties are available from scarlet red to pink, purple, white and bicolors. Give some afternoon shade for best results.
There are many other varieties and exciting new hybrids of Salvia in the trade, but the ones mentioned here should be easy to find and are proven performers in the garden.