Salvia is tough and beautiful. The bees love it and you probably do, too!
This member of the mint family is one of those no-brainer plants here in the Bay Area. Composing the largest genus of mints, this group of plants includes the culinary favorite, sage (Salvia officinalis). Most ornamental salvias are referred to by their Latin name. The word salvia comes from the Latin word ‘salvere’, which means to feel well and healthy.
Salvias tend to be woody plants, which is one reason why they are so good at handling drought. Depending on the variety, they can be evergreen or deciduous, annual, perennial, or biennial. Like other mints, the stems tend to grow at angles to each other and are square. The flower spikes are the big attraction. They consist of a modified leaf, called a bract, and stalked, clustered flowers, called racemes or panicles. Flowers can be red, pink, yellow, or white, but the deep blueish-purple is my favorite. Hummingbirds, butterflies, and other beneficial pollinators love them, as well.
Weird salvia science
Unlike most mints, which have four stamens, salvia have a unique pollination mechanism that uses only two stamens and connective tissue (thecae) that create a lever action. Within male flowers, this lever action causes pollen to be dumped on any visiting pollinator. After the pollinator leaves, everything returns to its normal position. In female flowers, the same mechanism pushes the stigma to be in the same general area on the pollinator’s body, increasing the likelihood of pollination and fertilization (assuming they are the same size).
How to grow salvia
Salvias can be grown from seeds, seedlings, or cuttings, depending on the variety, once the last frost date has passed. Most salvias prefer full sun and good air circulation. An exception is the Japanese yellow sage (Salvia koyamae), which prefers shade and moist soil. If your soil is heavy clay, like mine, you will want to incorporate some aged compost to lighten it up before planting. Salvias will produce more blooms with regular feeding. You can also mulch around plants with aged compost for reduced moisture loss and slow-release feeding. If you prune your salvias before they bloom, flowering can be significantly delayed. Better to shear your salvias at a time of year when they are not flowering. And be sure to deadhead spent blooms the rest of the year to stimulate more flower production. While being drought tolerant, your salvias will need to be watered. Just wait until you notice some moderate wilting, to avoid common fungal diseases.
Salvia pests and diseases
Rust, powdery mildew, and leaf spot may occur, but they can often be prevented with proper water management [Read: avoid overhead watering]. Aphids and thrips will be the most common pests. [Aren’t they always?] Many salvias have hairs on leaves and stems that discourage many pests and grazers (and my chickens).
Whether you choose edible culinary sage, fragrant pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), the sacred white sage (Salvia apiana), or sturdy purple sage (Salvia dorrii), try adding some salvia to your landscape or garden today!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!