Sages and Salvias: So Much to Discover (Part 2)

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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! 

Mexican Sages

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.

Gentian sage (Salvia patens) ‘Cambridge Blue’. Photo: thompson-morgan.com

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 (Salvia guaranitica) ‘Black and Blue’. Photo: emerisa.com

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 (Salvia uliginosa). Photo: gammvert.fr

Bog sage (S. uliginosa), another blue sage, is similar, this time in shades of paler blue.

Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha). Photo: Amazon.co.uk

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. 

Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) ‘Midnight’. Photo: gardens and architecture

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.

Autumn sage (S. greggii). Photo: earthtonesgreenery.com

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 (Salvia microphylla) ‘Hot Lips’. Photo: Cowell’s Garden Center

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.

Clary sage (Salvia sclarea). Photo: hplant-zone.blogspot.com

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.

With clary sage, the entire plant is beautiful, even its first year foliage. Photo: David Stang, Wikimedia Commons

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 (Salvia elegans). Photo: Amazon.com

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.

Pineapple Sage ‘Golden Delicious’. Photo: garden.org

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.

Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus). This is the cultivar ‘Roman Beauty’. Photo: Monrovia

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.

Creeping rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus prostatus). Photo: naturalwayorganiclandscaping.com

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).

Sage of the diviners (Salvia divinorum). Photo: Permies.com

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 (Salvia apiana). Photo: Susan Frommer, plantmaster.com

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.

More people have almost certainly seen white sage as a dried plant than as a live one Photo: thesacredscience.com

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.

White sage seedlings. Photo: gardentags.com

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.

Cereal Sages

Chia (Salvia hispanica) is better known for its packaged edible seeds than as a garden plant. Photo: Exotic Seeds Store

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.

The famous chia pet gets its greenery from sprouted chia seeds. Photo: chia.com

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

Jerusalem sage (Phlomis fruticosa) is just one example of a plant bearing the name sage that in fact belongs to a different genus. Photo: andre-briant.fr

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

Harvesting of white sage in California. Photo: shopaquariansoul.com

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

A garden of sage plants can be quite attractive. Photo: jackcollier7.com

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.

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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!

Sages and Salvias: So Much to Discover!

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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. 

Sages have two-lipped flowers, often with a calyx of a contrasting color. This is the interspecific sage ‘Amistad’ with a distinct and attractive calyx. Photo: fairweathers.co.uk.

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.

Bee visiting a sage flower. Note the stamens have bent over, deposing pollen on its body. Photo: Gideon Pisanty, Wikimedia Commons

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

Common sage (Salvia officinalis). Photo: Amazon.com

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!

Flowers of common sage (Salvia officinalis). Photo: plantsoftheworldonline.org

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.

Tricolor sage (Salvia officinalis ’Tricolor ’). Photo: letsgoplanting.co.uk

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.

Annual Sages

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.

Scarlet sage (Salvia splendens) was at one time the classic sage of the flower garden. Photo: personal.psu.edu

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 ‘Sizzler’ series of dwarf scarlet sages offers a wide range of colors. Photo: Kings Seeds

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.

Texas sage (Salvia coccinea) ‘Lady in Red’. Hummingbirds love this plant. Photo: Beds and Borders

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 Summer Jewel series of Texas sage. Photo: Park Seed

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.

The very popular mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea) ‘Victoria’. Photo: Benary

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).

One example of the growing number of interspecific salvias is ‘Indigo Spires’. Photo: Les Exceptionnelles

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.

Rockin’ Fuchsia interspecific salvia. Photo: Proven Winners

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!

In clary sage (Salvia viridis), the small white flowers are insignificant, but the bracts above are very colorful. Here, the ‘Marble Arch’ series. Photo: Amazon.com.

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.

Perennial Salvias

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.

‘Ostfriesland’ perennial salvia (Salvia nemorosa ‘Ostfriesland’). Photo: hauenstein-rafz.ch

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.

S. × sylvestris ‘Mainacht’ (‘May Night’), 2 feet (60 cm tall), with purple flowers and almost black bracts, was named Perennial of the Year in 1997 by the Perennial Plant Association. Photo: plantersbarn.ca

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).

Sauge des bois naine (Salvia nemorosa) ‘Profusion Pink’. Photo: Proven Winners

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 (Salvia pratensis). Photo: Wolfgang Stuppy, RBG

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.

Meadow sage (Salvia pratensis) Fashionista® ‘Moulin Rouge’. Photo: White Flower Farm

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 (S. verticillata) ‘Purple Rain’. Photo: pflanzenheld.de

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)

The popular Russian sage now has a new name: Salvia yangii. Photo: landscaping-gardendesign-paving-construction-surrey-london.co.uk

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.

Close-up of the flowers of Russian sage. Photo: Rational Observer, Wikimedia Commons

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 wild form of lyre-leaf sage (Salvia lyrata) is rarely cultivated due to its weedy habit. Photo: ukrbin.com

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 of lyre-leaf sage (Salvia lyrata) with dark purple foliage, such as ‘Purple Knockout’, are the ones usually grown. Photo: Crysta Guzman, txsmartscape.com

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 (Salvia glutinosa) is the best sage for shady locations. Photo: ukrbin.com

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.

Biennial Sages

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.

Silver sage (Salvia argentea) is grown primarily for the beautiful rosette of large leaves it forms in the first year. Photo: moldimluxv.com

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.

Silver sage in bloom the second year. Photo: plantmaster.com

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 (Salvia aethiopis) is similar to silver sage, but with more deeply toothed leaves. Photo: botanische-spaziergaenge.at

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.