Examples of different Salvia species. Clockwise from top left corner: garden sage (Salvia officinalis), perennial salvia (Salvia nemorosa ‘New Dimension’), anise-scented sage (Salvia guarantitica ‘Black and Blue’) and silver sage (Salvia argentea). Photos: White Flower Farm & Rotary Botanical Gardens
Few plants can boast as much variety as the sages, also called salvias (Salvia spp.). They can be annuals, biennials or perennials, even shrubs; hardy or frost tender; almost odorless or highly aromatic; strictly ornamental or medicinal, herbal or edible. In other words, they pretty much cover the gamut of possibilities! Many are both attractive and useful, grown as much for their beautiful, showy flowers, stunning foliage and alluring aroma while offering fascinating medicinal or even hallucinogenic uses.
No doubt you already grow some sort of sage in your garden already … even if you didn’t know it!
Two Names, One Genus
The genus Salvia is practically cosmopolitan, being only absent from Australia and Antarctica. And there are a lot of them: a whopping total of nearly 1,000 species! Gardeners seem undecided as to what to call them. There’s a tendency to call the ornamental varieties “salvia” and the more utilitarian varieties “sage”, but even that rule is not strictly adhered to.
Oddly, both names, sage and salvia, have the same origin, coming from the Latin “salvere” (to save), because the species the Romans knew best, common sage (Salvia officinalis), has important medicinal properties. They called it salvia: essentially meaning “the plant that saves”, a name later to be given to the entire genus as a botanical name. And as a common name, the Latin word salvia evolved over time into “sauge” in French, then “sage” in English.
What is a Sage?
Most species of sage are tropical or subtropical, and as such, are often treated as annuals in temperate climates, but there are also hardy perennials and biennials plus true annuals.
Salvias, despite their wide variety of forms, have several traits in common.
Like other plants in the Lamiaceae family (mint family), their stems are generally square in cross-section and they produce 2-lipped flowers, usually on elevated spikes.
One of the most original features is that the calyx of the flower (its outer casing), which is green in most plants, is often very colorful. Still others have colorful bracts (modified leaves). This explains the apparent longevity of sage flowers: the actual flower may drop off after a few days, but the calyx or colorful bract persists, prolonging the plant’s impact.
One curiosity of sages is their “mobile” flower: the stamens act like a lever. When a pollinator penetrates the flower, the lever is activated and the stamens suddenly drop onto its back, physically sticking pollen to it. This mechanism seems generic, functioning as well on insects of all kinds (bees, hoverflies, beetles, wasps, etc.) as on pollinating birds. Hummingbirds, in fact, are major pollinators of sages in the New World.
Most sages have aromatic foliage, often pleasantly scented, although in some species, that’s debatable. You generally have to rub the foliage to release the aroma, so if you don’t like the odor of a given variety, just don’t touch it again!
Sages You Can Grow
Given the nearly 1,000 species, it’s clearly impossible for me to showcase them all to you here. Instead, I’ll present only the main groups, those with decorative or useful elements, especially ones you’ll readily run into. If you want to try more, there are plenty of others to discover!
The Mother of All Sages
Let’s use the original sage as an initial example, the plant the Romans called salvia: S. officinalis. That is, of course, common sage, also called culinary sage or garden sage, or even just sage.
“Whoever has sage in his garden doesn’t need a doctor.”
Old Provençal adage
Sage has a long history of use as a medicinal plant. Indeed, as mentioned, Salvia essentially means “plant that saves” while its botanical epithet officinalis denotes a plant with medicinal or herbal uses. Common sage was thus used to treat a variety of ailments and, indeed, still is. Among others, it’s being studied for its use in improving memory and attention in the young, old and those with Alzheimer’s Disease. In the 18th century, people even smoked sage leaves like a cigarette to cure sore throats and asthma.
Sage was also traditionally associated with immortality and longevity.
Nowadays, however, common sage is most widely considered a culinary herb … a very attractive culinary herb!
It’s an evergreen subshrub, eventually forming a clump about 20 inches (50 cm) high and 24 inches (60 cm) in diameter, with attractively rough, somewhat downy, grayish, highly aromatic foliage. It produces spikes of small, very decorative bluish to purple flowers rising above the leaves on flower spikes about 30 inches (75 cm) in height. It tends to put on mostly foliage growth the first year, not blooming until the second and later ones. Sadly, in colder climates where it suffers winter damage, it may never bloom.
Give this sage full sun and well-drained soil rather on the poor side. It’s very drought tolerant once well established. It’s hardy in USDA hardiness zones 4 to 9 (AgCan zones 5 to 9). It may survive in colder climates with use of a thick winter mulch.
It offers several cultivars with more colorful foliage, such as ‘Purpurascens’ (purplish gray), ‘Tricolor’ (gray-green, white and pink), ‘Berggarten’ (rounded, more silvery leaves) and ‘Aurea’ (light green edged with yellow). Most of these are somewhat less hardy than the species and may need to be treated as annuals or brought indoors over the winter in colder climates.
Sage leaves can be harvested at any season and used fresh or dried in soups, sauces, meat dishes, etc.
But not all sages are herbal or medicinal plants: several popular sages are used instead as ornamentals. This is particularly the case with annual sages.
When I was a boy, we used to call scarlet sage (S. splendens) salvia, period. It was the salvia of flower borders. But it’s no longer the only annual species used, so the term scarlet sage has gained ground.
The species was originally a very tall herbaceous perennial native to Brazil, reaching up to 26 feet (8 m) in height in the wild, although no more than 4 feet (1.2 m) high when grown as a summer annual. Modern cultivars are even more compact, some measuring as little as 8 inches (20 cm) tall. Although actually a tropical perennial, it is almost always grown as an annual in temperate regions, started from seed indoors each spring, although you can also treat it as a houseplant.
The broad, toothed leaves, very dark green, showcase a dense, broad spike of tubular flowers that are fiery red in the species, while cultivars come in various shades of red, pink, white, purple and salmon orange. Usually, the long-lasting calyx is the same color as the flower, but sometimes it’s of a contrasting color, as in ‘Sangria’ (red flowers with a lime-green calyx). Among the most popular series are ‘Sizzler’ and a ‘Salsa’, two dwarf types (about 14 inches/40 cm tall) that offer a full range of colors.
Expect a bit of confusion here, as the next most common annual sage, S. coccinea, is also called scarlet sage! That’s a literal translation of its botanical name (coccinea means scarlet). However, it also goes by the name Texas sage (although actually native to Mexico) and I’ll use that name here.
It has a distinctly airier habit than the other scarlet sage, with smaller flowers united in well-separated whorls on an upright spike, giving it a layered appearance. It’s a true annual (it dies at the end of the season).
The flower with a well-developed lower lip is red, pink, white or bicolor; the calyx is usually green. The triangular leaves too are medium green. Most cultivars are about 1 to 3 feet high and 8 to 9 inches (20 to 25 cm) in diameter. The classic cultivar is ‘Lady in Red’, with scarlet-red flowers, but there are many others, including the Summer Jewel series (13 to 20 inches/35 to 50 cm in height) offering four colors, ‘Summer Jewel Lavender’, Summer Jewel Pink’, ‘Summer Jewel White’ and ‘Summer Jewel Red’, each variety an All-America Selections winner.
Mealycup sage or mealy sage (S. farinacea) is so called because the flower’s blue calyx appears lightly powdered with flour, an effect that often highlights the small purple, blue or white blooms borne on its narrow and very upright flower spike. The lanceolate leaves are gray-green. Usual dimensions: 1 to 2 feet × 8 to 9 inches (30 to 60 cm × 20 to 25 cm). Although a tender perennial from Mexico and Texas, it’s only adapted to hardiness zones 8 to 9, so is considered an annual in most temperate areas. However, if you want to try to keep this plant from year to year, you can bring it indoors for the winter and use it as a houseplant.
S. farinacea ‘Victoria’, blue-violet, 18 to 20 inches (45 to 50 cm) tall, has long been the most popular cultivar, but there are many other varieties, including several series offering a mixture of colors in the range of purples, blues, whites and bicolors, such as Cathedral (12 to 18 inches/30 to 45 cm) and Unplugged (18 to 24 inches/45 to 60 cm).
There are also a growing number of interspecific salvias (yes, they tend to be called salvias rather than sages) that are sold in nurseries as annuals. They result from crosses between two different salvia species (that’s the meaning of the word “interspecific”) and thus share the traits of their parents. Inevitably, these salvias are sterile, failing to produce viable seeds, and are therefore multiplied vegetatively (through cuttings or tissue culture). You can maintain them indoors over the winter for a second season of bloom the following summer if you don’t want to buy new plants each spring.
One group of these interspecific salvias is the cross between the mealy sage (described above) and S. longispicata, discovered by chance at the Huntington Botanic Garden in San Marino, California. It produces a taller, very long-blooming plant in the same color range as mealycup sage: various blues and purples. Of this category, the most popular are S. × ‘Indigo Spires’, with spikes of small dense purple flowers on a plant 18 to 36 inches (45 to 90 cm) and 24 to 36 inches (60 to 90 cm) wide and S. × Mystic Spires Improved (‘Balsalmispim’), with intense dark blue flowers, 24 to 36 inches (60 to 90 cm) tall and wide. As mentioned, you have to multiply these plants vegetatively.
Another example of interspecific salvia is the S. × Rockin ‘series (Rockin’ Fuchsia, Rockin’ Deep Purple, etc.) which actually includes a mix of parent species, so that the individual plants really don’t look that much alike. Most have broad, glossy leaves and erect spikes, reach about 24 to 36 inches (60 to 90 cm) in height and 24 to 30 inches (60 to 75 cm) in diameter and flower all summer. Again, these are sterile plants reproducible by cuttings.
And there are many other interspecific salvias. In fact, more and more every year!
Clary sage or painted sage (S. viridis, syn. S. horminum) comes from the Mediterranean region and the Middle East. It’s a true annual, dying at the end of the season regardless of the climate. It’s very fast growing, so it is generally sown directly in the garden early in the spring or even the previous fall (the seeds are very resistant to winter cold). It can also be sown indoors 4 weeks before the last frost to ensure earlier flowering.
Clary sage is very different from the other annual sages featured here. In this curious plant, the white flowers are tiny and insignificant, but the upper leaves, called bracts, change color upon flowering and become its claim to fame. The bracts are usually purple, red, pink or white, often with contrasting veins. The stem dries well and keeps for several years in dried flower arrangements.
Very easy to grow, it’s the only commonly cultivated annual sage that often self-sows in temperate regions.
S. viridis ‘Marble Arch’ (2 feet/60 cm), offered as a mix and in separate colors, is perhaps the most widely available variety.
With the exception of clary sage, rarely offered in garden centers other than in seed packs, annual sages are readily available as ready-to-plant bedding plants in the spring wherever such are sold. Those sages with viable seeds can also be sown indoors 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost (10 to 12 weeks before the last frost in the case of mealy sage, which is slower growing). Do not cover the seeds with potting mix, but only press them into the substrate: they need light to germinate.
Outdoors, all these sages do best in full sun, but tolerate light shade. They prefer rich to average quality soils and medium to fairly dry soil conditions. Most are quite drought resistant, although scarlet sage less so than the others. Clary sage, always the exception to every rule, grows best in poor, dry soil.
In the vast genus Salvia, there are also long-lived herbaceous plants adapted to temperate climates: in other words, perennials! In fact, some are very popular classic perennials found in many gardens.
The most common of the sages in this is a triumvirate of species generally referred to simply as perennial salvia. This group includes the woodland sage (S. nemorosa) and two hybrid species: S. × superba and S. × sylvestris of imperfectly understood parentage. They are so similar that even botanists have a hard time telling them apart, which is why they get lumped together under the name perennial salvia. Many suppliers simply slap the name S. nemorosa on all their perennial salvias too, not seeming to want to bother digging up their real one. Moreover, S. nemorosa (although called woodland sage, this Eurasian species is actually a plant of fields, not forests) is likely to be among the parents of the two hybrid species.
Perennial salvias form a dense tuft about 18 inches (45 cm) in diameter, made up of numerous erect stems bearing medium green, rather lanceolate leaves. They are aromatic if rubbed (some people like the smell, some don’t). The stems are capped with thin floral spikes laden with tiny blooms. The flowers appear mostly in particularly vivid shades of blue and purple, but there are also cultivars with red, pink, white and bicolor flowers. The long-lasting calyx is usually colored as well, often the same color as the flower, extending the plant’s season of attractiveness. Thus, the plants seem to flower for a very long time, from June to August. Better clones will bloom again in the fall if they are cut back after the first flowering. They’re adapted to USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8 (AgCan zones 4 to 8).
There are dozens of cultivars of perennial salvia, including S. nemorosa ‘Ostfriesland’ (‘East Friesland’), an older variety and probably the best known. It’s about 30 inches (75 cm) tall with dark purple flowers and pink to purple calyxes. Sometimes staking is needed for this cultivar and others of similar height. S. nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ is similar to ‘Ostfriesland’, but its sturdier 24 to 30-inch (60 to 75 cm) stems and calyces are dark purple, which brings out the bright blue-violet flowers.
There is a profusion of newer varieties in this category, including the Color Spires series which offers the full range of colors on medium-sized plants (18 to 20 inches/45 to 50 cm).
Among the dwarf varieties, S. × sylvestris ‘Blauhügel’ (‘Blue Hill’), with blue-violet flowers, and its white flowering variant, S. × sylvestris’ Schneehügel (‘Snow Hill’), are justly popular. They grow to about 14 to 16 inches (40 to 50 cm) in height and never need staking. S. nemorosa ‘Marcus’, even shorter (1 foot/30 cm), with very dark blue-violet flowers, is also commonly offered, while an entire dwarf series, Profusion (13 to 16 inches/35 to 40 cm) offers the full range of colors: blue, purple, pink, red, white, etc.
Meadow sage or meadow clary (S. pratensis), from Eurasia and northern Africa, was long eclipsed by the perennial salvias (S. nemorosa and relatives) as a garden plant, but is becoming more and more popular these days. Its striking flowers, with a long, arching upper lip, are larger than those of most other perennial salvias and come in various shades of blue, purple, pink, red and white. The large leaves, mostly concentrated in the rosette at the foot of the plant and at the base of the stems, form an elongated heart, with a somewhat toothed, wavy edge. They’re also slightly aromatic.
The wild form of meadow sage can reach 4 to 5 feet (1-1.5 m) in height, but most cultivars are half that. ‘Indigo’ (dark purple-blue, 30 inches/75 cm) and ‘Rosea’ (medium pink, 30 inches/75 cm) are typical of the common cultivars. The Fashionista® series (‘Lipstick’, ‘Moulin Rouge’, ‘Ballerina Pink’, etc.) is even more compact: 22 to 24 inches (55 to 60 cm). This species is adapted to USDA hardiness zones 4 to 9 (AgCan zones 5 to 9).
Lilac sage or whorled clary (S. verticillata) is less well known than perennial salvia, but just as interesting. Its downy and aromatic leaves are capped with erect spikes of lilac flowers with burgundy calyces. The flowers are grouped in well-spaced globular whorls on a dark purple stem, giving a pagoda effect. Since both the calyces and stems are colorful, the plant appears to bloom on long after the (tiny) true flowers have dropped off! As with the perennial salvia, if you deadhead it, the plant will often bloom again in the fall.
The 3-foot (90 cm) species tends to be a bit floppy, so staking may be needed. The 2-foot × 18-inch (60 cm × 45 cm) cultivar ‘Purple Rain’, with stronger stems and lighter green leaves, is the most popular of the lilac sage cultivars.
USDA hardiness zones 3 to 8 (AgCan zones 4 to 8)
Russian sage has been called a sage for a long time, but wars originally considered to be something other than a true Salvia and was thus placed in the genus Perovskia under the botanical name P. atriplicifolia. Well, thanks to a botanical revision in 2017, that genus is no more! Russian sage has now joined the ranks of true sages under the name S. yangii. The plant has quite a shrub-like appearance with almost woody stems, but is nonetheless a true perennial, dying to the ground every winter.
The silvery-white stems grow upward and outward, giving the plant an inverted pyramid shape. The aromatic leaves are gray-green and very deeply cut, unusual for a sage (most have entire leaves). From midsummer on, the plant is covered with small, blue-purple, tubular flowers with fuzzy purple calyces. The combined effect of the two results in an overall hazy pale silvery-purple coloration: absolutely charming!
Dimensions: 2 to 4 feet × 2 to 3 feet (60 to 120 cm × 60 to 90 cm).
Grow Russian sage (which, in fact, does not come from Russia per se, but the steppes of Central Asia, from Afghanistan to China) in full sun. It is intolerant of shade and, in fact, tends to lean towards the most intense sun, wherever that is. It needs a well-drained soil, preferably on the dry side, and actually does better in poor, stony soils than rich ones. USDA hardiness zones 2 to 9 (AgCan zones 3 to 9).
The original lyre-leaf sage (S. lyrata), native to the central United States, is rarely grown as a garden plant, as not only is it considered of only limited attractiveness, but it’s also distinctly weedy. It has, however, produced several cultivars with purple foliage that are popular.
Cultivars form a fairly flattened rosette of violin-shaped leaves that are dark green in spring and dark shiny purple from midsummer on … and it’s those colorful leaves that are their main draw. The slender, upright flower stems, also purple, are not unsightly, though, and do bear relatively small purple or white flowers adding some floral interest.
The different cultivars, like ‘Purple Volcano’, ‘Purple Prince’, ‘Purple Knockout’, etc. are so similar it really isn’t worth distinguishing between them: any lyre-leaf sage purple leaves will meet your expectations.
?? Warning: this sage is sometimes self-sows too abundantly and can invade nearby gardens and lawns! It’s best to deadhead after blooming, before the flowers go to seed.
Dimensions: 8 to 9 inches × 9 inches (20 to 25 cm × 25 cm). USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9 (AgCan zones 4 to 9).
Sticky sage (S. glutinosa) stands out among perennial salvias with its pale yellow flowers, late bloom and high shade tolerance. It is covered in sticky hairs, whence its name.
It’s a fall-flowering (September to November) woodland plant measuring 24 to 36 inches tall and 18 to 36 inches wide (60 to 90 cm × 45 to 90 cm), suitable for USDA hardiness zones 2 to 8 (AgCan zones 3 to 8).
I provide more details on this plant and a few other shade-tolerant sage species in the article A Sage Made for the Shade.
The various perennial sages are easy to grow. With the exception of shade-loving sticky sage, they need sunlight or light shade. All prefer average to rather poor, even dry soil; heavy or soggy soils should be avoided. In general stem cuttings or division are used in multiplying perennial salvias. Sticky sage and the purple varieties of lyre-leaf sage, however, usually come true to type and are easily propagated from seed.
One oft-forgotten group of sages are the biennials.
They have two very different stages of growth: in the first year, they form a large, fairly flattened rosette, attractive for its foliage. The second year, they grow taller and flowering becomes the main focus of attention. The plant dies after seed production in the fall of the second year and the cycle repeats. They sometimes maintain themselves by self-sowing, but it’s best to harvest seeds before winter and sow them in the spring, just to be sure you won’t lose them.
Perhaps the best known of the biennial sages is silver sage or silver salvia (S. argentea). In the first year, it forms a rosette about 10 inches (25 cm) high and 2 feet (60 cm) in diameter made up of pairs of large triangular, toothed leaves, heavily covered with white hairs. New leaves are so densely covered in fuzz they appear pure white, but become silvery gray as they enlarge.
The second year, the plant stretches to 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 cm) in height by adding smaller, well-spaced leaves on a branching stem. The white or white and purple flowers appear at the end of these stems from June to September.
Many gardeners mistakenly believe this plant to be an annual and pull it up at the end of the season. It makes much more sense to let the plant overwinter and enjoy the following year’s show.
If you want to prevent flowering and maintain only a low, silvery rosette (some people do), cut off the flower stem as soon as it appears. That will force the plant to produce an additional rosette or two and push flowering back to the following year. If you keep cutting the flower stalks down each spring, you can essentially convert this biennial into a perennial … for a few years, at least. Eventually, however, a plant so treated will give up the ghost: there is a limit to pushing a plant to go well beyond its normal limits!
USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9 (AgCan zones 3 to 9).
Mediterranean sage (S. aethiopis), from Europe and Central Asia, is very similar to silver sage in its general appearance and the dimensions of its rosette, except that its leaves, much more deeply toothed, are often a little less downy, gray rather than silvery. In the second year, if allowed to bloom, it produces stems of 60 to 120 cm of white flowers sometimes tinged with pale yellow. USDA hardiness zones 3 to 9 (AgCan zones 3 to 9).
?? Mediterranean sage has been known to escape from culture and become a weed, especially under arid conditions. It might therefore be wise to cut it back before it goes to seed.
Even More Sages
There are still many other sages of great interest for home gardens: Mexican sages, medicinal sages and herbal sages and even one sage used as a cereal! To learn more about these fascinating plants, read the rest of this article in the blog: Sages and Salvias: So Much to Discover!, Part 2.