Some examples of sages and salvias. Clockwise from top left corner: Gregg’s sage (Salvia greggii) ‘Furman’s Red’, gentian sage (Salvia patens) ‘Patio Deep Blue’, clary sage (Salvia sclarea) ‘Vatican White’ and chia (Salvia hispanica). Photos: Robert Perry, nlandvalleygardenplanner.org, mullerseeds.com, i.pinimg.com & chia.com
Yesterday’s blog article presented a whole host of sages, mostly annual, perennial and biennial ones. Here are some more to discover!
With over 500 species, Mexico and Central America are one of the major centers of diversity for the genus Salvia. These species, generally called Mexican sages, are usually not annuals, biennials, perennials or subshrubs like most of the sages seen elsewhere in the world, but rather subtropical shrubs often of a fairly large size, most with aromatic foliage. Outside of Mediterranean climates, where you can grow them as outdoor shrubs, they’re essentially raised as annuals, bought as bedding plants in the spring for their beautiful flowers, especially abundant in from midsummer through fall.
Perhaps the best-known Mexican sage is gentian sage (S. patens), named for the intense gentian blue of its spikes of large, 2-inch (5 cm) two-lipped flowers. It normally grows up to 5 feet (1.5 m) tall by 14 inches (35 cm) in diameter, but there are many more compact cultivars, such as ‘Blue Angel’ (18 to 24 inches/45 to 60 cm) and ‘Cambridge Blue’ (30 inches/75 cm), all in various shades of the most striking blues you’re likely to see in the plant world.
Anise-scented sage or hummingbird sage (S. guaranitica) also produces large blue to purple flowers. The best-known cultivar is ‘Black and Blue’, with blue flowers and dark purple, almost black calyces. It’s a tall plant, 4 to 6 feet (1.2 to 2 m) and more by 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 cm) in diameter.
Bog sage (S. uliginosa), another blue sage, is similar, this time in shades of paler blue.
Mexican bush sage (S. leucantha) can also be quite a stunner. It forms a dense shrub of narrow, downy, grayish willowlike foliage with a fruity aroma and abundant long, arching flower stalks. They’re covered in velvety purple calyces from which peer small white flowers.
At least, that’s the case for the species. Some cultivars, including the very popular ‘Midnight’, have purple flowers and therefore show no trace of white.
This is a spectacular plant: to see it is to want it! It’s essentially a fall bloomer, though. In short-season areas, it can be damaged by an early frost before it has even reached peak bloom, forcing you to drag the huge thing indoors early where it will pretty much fill your living room. Expect it to reach 3 to 4 feet (90 to 120 cm) in height and spread.
Don’t let the name fool you autumn sage (S. greggii) fool you. It’s one of the earliest Mexican sages and blooms from early summer right through fall: up to 6 months! This sage bears numerous bright red flowers with a broad lower lip on a small-leaved shrub. Cultivated varieties rarely exceed 30 inches (75 cm) in height and spread although the wild form can reach three times that.
There are dozens of cultivars of autumn sage with flowers in all shades of red, pink, purple and white as well as cultivars with variegated foliage.
Black currant sage (S. microphylla, syn. S. grahamii) is similar and, in fact, often crosses with autumn sage, producing interesting hybrids, but it’s usually a larger plant: 4 to 6 feet (1 to 2 m) high × 4 feet (1 m) wide. It gets its common name from the scent given off by its leaves, said to smell like black currants.
Mexican sages only survive winter in areas with a mild climate (hardiness zones 8 to 10) such as California, Florida, southern France and much of Australia. In more temperate regions, you can treat them as annuals, letting them freeze in the fall, or bring in plants or cuttings for the winter.
If you bring plants indoors, cut them back to about 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) so they won’t take up too much space and then simply treat them as houseplants for the cold season, placing them near a sunny window and watering them modestly. Another alternative is to force them into dormancy by withholding water and storing them dry in a cold but frost-free room, such as a root cellar, during the winter.
The following spring, when all danger of frost has disappeared, you can put them back outdoors for another flowering season. To facilitate this indoor/outdoor movement, you may find it convenient to grow Mexican sages in pots.
All of these plants need bright sunlight (although anise-scented sage and bog sage still do well in partial shade) and well-drained soil, rich or poor.
Aromatic and Medicinal Sages
I already described the “mother of all sages”, common sage (S. officinalis), definitely a highly aromatic and medicinal sage, in Part 1 of this article, but it’s not the only sage with similar attributes.
This also applies to clary sage (S. sclarea), still generally seen as a medicinal plant, but one I feel should definitely be used more as an ornamental, as it is highly attractive at all stages of its growth.
It’s a biennial that produces a rosette of large, gray-green, softly hairy leaves in the first year, already stunning. It’s in the second year, though, that the real show begins.
The name clary derives from “clear eye”. Soaked seeds produce a mucilaginous substance that, when placed in the corner of the eye with a swab, will draw towards it any grain that has landed in the eye, clearing it.
First, the plant produces, in early summer, a very dense cluster of white, pink or pale purple bracts that often pass for flowers. Then a large branching flower stalk starts to rise, lifting the bracts slowly until they become spaced apart on a wine-red stalk. By midsummer, a multitude of bluish, pale purple or white flowers will be reaching out from among the bracts. By then, the plant will be about 30 to 48 inches (75 to 120 cm) in height and about 2 feet (60 cm) in diameter. The effect is striking and lasts until fall.
Perhaps even more beautiful is the subspecies S. sclarea turkestanica, with its white and pink bracts and small pink or lilac flowers.
Clary sage is an easy-to-grow plant adapted to a wide range of conditions. This plant is much hardier than it’s usually given credit for being (some sites suggest a limit of zone 5): dare to be brave and try it in USDA hardiness zones 2 to 9, AgCan zones 3 to 9.
Pineapple sage (S. elegans) is actually one of the Mexican sages (see above), therefore a rather shrubby variety, but unlike other plants in this group, it’s mostly grown for its aromatic, edible foliage that smells and tastes like pineapple … or tangerine or honey melon, depending on the cultivar. The flowers are just as tasty as the leaves.
With an upright, spreading habit, pineapple sage produces robust stems of ovate leaves about 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 cm) long. They’re medium green, downy and have a lightly toothed margin. It grows to 3 to 4 feet (90 to 120 cm) tall and 2 to 3 feet (60 to 90 cm) in diameter. A short-day plant, it blooms spectacularly in late summer and fall (exactly depends on local conditions), with airy spikes of bright red tubular flowers that attract butterflies and, in the New World, hummingbirds.
Except in regions with a very mild climate (hardiness zones 9 to 11), pineapple sage is usually either grown as an annual or overwintered indoors. It’s usually multiplied by stem cuttings, rarely by seeds.
The cultivar S. elegans ‘Golden Delicious’ bears striking chartreuse-green leaves and is especially attractive, doubly so when it finally blooms very late in the season.
One plant that has recently joined the ranks of aromatic sages is rosemary. Yes, the famous aromatic herb has changed its botanical allegiance! Rosemary was formerly called Rosmarinus officinalis, but has been incorporated into the genus Salvia, under the name S. rosmarinus, following a taxonomic revision of the genus in 2017.
It is a classic shrub of the Mediterranean scrubland, usually growing from 2 to 6 feet (60 to 180 cm) or more in height and 2 to 4 feet (60 to 120 cm) in diameter, with woody stems bearing exfoliating grayish bark and narrow, linear, leathery, almost needle-like leaves. They are dark green on the top and silvery white on the reverse. They give off an intense almost coniferous aroma when touched. The leaves also have insect repellent and medicinal properties, but are mainly used nowadays as a culinary herb. Under the right conditions, rosemary also produces pale bluish-violet flowers in short clusters along its stems (and therefore not on an elongated terminal flower spike like all the other sages described here) in late winter or spring, depending on the local climate.
Rosemary grows best in full sun, but tolerates partial shade. It adapts to almost any well-drained soil, even poor, alkaline ones, and requires watering only when the soil feels dry to the touch. Do not overwater, as this can cause rot. Usually, it’s propagated by cuttings, although you can grow it from seed if you’re patient.
In milder climates (USDA hardiness zones 7 to 10, AgCan zones 8 to 10), rosemary can be grown outdoors all year around, at least as long as there is excellent drainage. In colder climates, bring it indoors for in winter and grow it in a sunny, cool spot.
There are many different cultivars of rosemary with a wide range of habits (erect, spreading, prostrate, etc.) or with flowers of different shades of blue as well as white or pink. Some are more resistant to cold winters than others, notably ‘Arp’, considered the hardiest one (USDA hardiness zones 6 to 10, AgCan zones 7 to 10).
Clearly on the medicinal side of the sage family, because, aesthetically, it’s not that striking, is the sage of the diviners or seer’s sage (S. divinorum), sometimes called magic mint, maria pastora or simply “salvia” by those who indulge in it. It’s smoked for its hallucinogenic properties, creating a trancelike state and sometimes visions. This plant is enjoying some popularity currently, especially among adolescents, although it has been banned in many countries (Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and others, as well as in many states and territories of the United States). So, look into local regulations if this is the kind of plant that interests you.
It’s not the easiest plant to grow. First, its seeds being generally sterile, it is usually multiplied vegetatively (i.e. by stem cuttings). And it needs good light indoors or a spot under a grow light. Also aim for good atmospheric humidity: at least 50% relative humidity if possible, because its natural environment is the cloud forest of the high mountains of Mexico where it lives in almost constant fog. Water well when the soil feels dry to the touch. Under high humidity, it may not need watering very often.
Usually, the sage of the diviners is grown in pots to facilitate the transition to outdoor conditions in the spring, when temperatures warm up, and back indoors in the fall. In the garden, a location in partial shade will quite be suitable.
Ideally, it should not be subjected to temperatures below 50 °F (10 °C) and therefore, it often needs to be brought back indoors in early fall.
The plant tends to be tall (theoretically up to 7 feet/2.5 m) and weak-stemmed, bending and even breaking if left to grow on its own. So, it is usually pruned regularly … and that prevents flowering, leading to a common belief it is incapable of blooming. However, it will produce narrow spikes of small flowers with a purple calyx and white corolla if you’re able to maintain it without cutting it back. Hardiness zones: 9 to 11.
White sage or sacred sage (Salvia apiana) is a shrub about 5 to 8 feet (150 to 250 cm) tall from arid regions of California and Baja California (Mexico). It is considered sacred in the traditions of some First Nations peoples, used for its medicinal and spiritual properties, especially when burned during purification ceremonies.
The woolly white-green leaves of white sage are actually quite attractive. It blooms in late spring with spikes of small white flowers on tall spikes … at least, in the right climate.
White sage is rarely grown with much success outside of its native region or at least a similar Mediterranean climate, as it adapts poorly to humid climates. However, the current popularity of “smudging” (the act of burning herbs for spiritual and medicinal purposes) is leading to many gardeners wanting to give it a try.
If you want to try growing white sage, you can order seeds on the Internet. Their germination rate, however, is very low and germination is slow. Sow the seeds indoors at the end of March, on the top of the potting mix, placing the tray on a heating mat and exposing it to full sun. The potting mix needs to remain slightly moist until there are at least 4 to 6 true leaves. Then gradually acclimatize the young plants to a soil that dries out between waterings.
In the summer, transplant the seedlings into the open ground in extremely well-drained, sandy soil and in full sun. Given its limited hardiness zones (zones 8 to 10), you can expect to produce only young plants in this way and thus harvest a few leaves from each. Only in the appropriate Mediterranean climate could you anticipate seeing your plants grow into shrubs and eventually even blooming.
This is a category of two, as there are really is only two sages commonly grown as a cereal: chia (S. hispanica) and its close relative, desert chia (S. columbariae). Their ground or roasted seeds have been consumed since pre-Columbian times in South and Central America (they’re native to Mexico), but they’re now a staple in health food stores across the globe. Few people realize that this much-vaunted healthy herb—rich in fiber, protein, omega-3 acids, and various micronutrients that support digestive and gut health and help boost the immune system—is a sage!
Usually, raw whole or ground chia seeds are added to dishes (breakfast cereal, smoothies, yoghurt, bread, etc.) to increase their nutritional value, or instead, whole seeds are sprouted and eaten as sprouts or microgreens.
And there is also the famous “chia pet”, that small clay figure in the shape of an animal or human that grows green “hair”. The hair, of course, is actually sprouting chia plants. This is a cute little gift and results are rapid, but short-lived (the entire display, from sowing to collapse of the seedlings, lasts about 10 days). Typically, a chia pet is used just once and is soon put away and forgotten.
You can grow your own chia seeds by sowing some outdoors in the garden as you would any vegetable. That will require a climate with hot, long summers, as the plant, although a true annual, is slow to mature, especially in cool climates, requiring 120 to 180 days or even more to produce harvestable seed.
You can use from whole seeds bought from a supermarket or health food store in your garden, as they’ll be viable.
Sow the seeds without covering them (just press them into the soil) in the vegetable garden as soon as the soil has warmed up and any risk of cool nights is over. Or start them indoors in a pot about 1 month earlier and transplant them into the garden. Note that starting them indoors won’t much accelerate the speed of harvest: flowering is dependent on short days and therefore on the arrival of autumn.
The plant produces pointed oval green leaves and spikes of small whorled white, purple or lavender flowers. When you can’t get the conditions for chia to mature, you could still at least harvest and consume its edible leaves.
When a Sage Isn’t a Sage
Several plants with the common name “sage” are not sages at all, although some do belong to the same family, the Lamiaceae (mint family). Here are a few of them:
- Antelope sage (Eriogonum jamesii, Polygonaceae).
- Jerusalem sage (Phlomis spp., Lamiaceae).
- Prairie sage (Artemisia ludoviciana, Asteraceae).
- Sagebrush (Artemisia spp., Asteraceae).
- Texas sage (Leucophyllum frutescens, Scrophulariaceae).
- Wood sage (Teucrium scorodonia, Lamiaceae).
Growing Your Own Sages
With so many so different species in this genus—annuals, biennials, perennials, shrubs, etc.— coming from the most varied climates, it would be impossible here to offer growing information adapted to all sages. Inside, return to the individual descriptions of the plants that interest you in these two articles, part 1 and part 2, above, for details on how to grow them.
You’ll find, however, that most sages like full sun (but tolerate partial shade) and adapt to almost any well-drained soil. Very few are comfortable in heavy or wet soils. They are generally not very greedy when it comes to minerals, so avoid in particular fertilizers too rich in nitrogen. An annual application of compost is sufficient “food” in most cases.
Usually, insects and herbivorous animals are not a problem with sages: their aromatic foliage, which we often find very pleasantly scented, is in fact a natural insect and animal repellent. They are also generally disease-resistant, but do watch out for rot in poorly drained soils.
Unless stated otherwise, staking is rarely necessary. Pruning is mostly limited to cutting back flower stems after flowering or severely pruning plants that you want to bring indoors for the winter.
Showing Off Sage to Best Advantage
Displaying sages in the garden offers many possibilities!
Perennial and biennial sages, as well as annual ones, deserve a place in a sunny flower bed, low varieties on the edge, larger ones towards the center. Annual types are also great in container gardens, as are Mexican sages when they’re grown as summer annuals. In mild climates, plant them outdoors in the shrub border or as hedge plants.
Herbal sages are also interesting in containers: that way you can place them near the kitchen for ease of use, but they also fit perfectly into vegetable beds, herb gardens or even flower beds, as most are quite attractive.
Many sages have more or less silvery or gray foliage, hues that bring out dark colors, such as the purple foliage of some heucheras (Heuchera spp.) and coleus (Coleus scutellarioides) as well as purple-leaved shrubs like ninebarks (Physocarpus opulifolius ‘Seward’ Summer Wine ™ and similar), plus anything with dark green foliage.
Where to Find Sages?
Actually, you can find them almost everywhere, in the appropriate season, of course!
No doubt your local garden center offers a good choice of sages in different departments – herbs, annuals, perennials, etc. – depending on the expected use of the plant. Otherwise, annuals are available as seed from many seed catalogs while perennial and Mexican sages are offered by several mail order plant nurseries. A quick search on Google ought to lead you to the sage of your choice.
If you are looking for a wide selection of medicinal and aromatic sages in Canada and the United States, try Richters Herbs of Ontario (they ship to Canada and the US), which sells not only seeds and plants, but also dried sages for medicinal use.
Become a garden sage yourself and grow a few sages: you won’t regret it!
Don’t forget to read part 1 of the article Sages and Salvias: So Much to Discover!