Sizzling Salvias

A garden with the heady, pungent aroma of Salvia embodies the sultry summer air of a North Carolina garden. Once cultivated primarily for medicinal and culinary purpose, Salvia has become the quintessential garden plant for today’s southern gardens.

Courtesy of JC Raulston Arboretum

Courtesy of JC Raulston Arboretum

The largest genus in the mint family, Salvia is characterized by square stems and opposite pairs of leaves.  Distributed throughout the world, over half are native to South and Central America, and Mexico.

From Latin meaning to save, to cure, or to heal: these are the restorative properties promised by the use of Salvia in ancient medicine. The Romans were among the first to recognize its effectiveness.  Modern day medicine still supports the use of sage for a myriad of ailments, but its efficacy is up for debate.

If faced with the challenge of having to choose one Salvia in my garden, I would grow Lipstick Texas Sage (Salvia greggii ‘Lipstick’).  Few plants look as good or last as strong as ‘Lipstick’ in North Carolina’s summer heat and drought.  From May to November this perennial produces red flowers as bright as rubies with a hint of white at the throat.  It’s truly a winner in any garden.

A close relative of Texas Sage, Hot Lips Sage (Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’) has become a must-have in the garden with its red and white flowers in summer.  Both prefer well-drained soil, and a sunny location. Lipstick Sage and Hot Lips Sage pair well with ornamental grasses, coleus, and canna lilies; I especially like them with Australia Canna Lily (Canna ‘Australia’), whose dark red-black leaves provide the perfect backdrop for the bright colored flowers.

Mealy Cup Sage (Salvia farinacea) has been a favorite among southern gardeners.  Tolerant of summer heat and drought, Mealy Cup bears silvery white or bright blue flowers all summer long and attracts bees and butterflies alike.  As a cut flower it holds well in a vase or dried. ‘Victoria’ and ‘Victoria White’ are perhaps the most widely grown for their eye-catching flowers accented on glossy green foliage.  With shade tolerance and a preference for moist, yet well-drained soil, Mealy Cup offers a variety of uses for gardeners.

‘Indigo Spires’, a hybrid (between Salvia farinacea and S. longispicata), presents the same electric blue flowers on a much taller plant than ‘Victoria’ from July to November; all while reliably attracting butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. You can’t ask much more from this tough plant which flourishes in heat and humidity.

A painter’s palette of color, Scarlet Sage (Salvia splendens), is the typical flowering annual found in a wide range of vivid colors. When used in mass, this Salvia creates a carpet of color in a summer flowerbed.  Who can resist pairing a bright coral with the montage of color from ‘Aurora’ coleus; or a hot red with a sunny yellow lantana?

We can’t ignore the common garden sage (Salvia officinalis), used in savory dishes from stuffing to soups and sauces; sage supplies a hardy, robust peppery flavor.  Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) tastes just as its name suggests and can be steeped in hot water for an herbal tea.  Hummingbirds are especially attracted to the bright red flowers atop the 4-5 foot plant.  Both common sage and pineapple sage work equally well in a classic perennial border or kitchen garden.

With so many choices for Salvia in the garden, one can scarcely excuse not growing it.  Reliable in our heat, with drought tolerance to boot, it is the garden plant to grow for summer color.

Sandra Zazzara is a plant geek among her friends and family.  She considers her enthusiasm for plants an infectious addiction. She also volunteers at the JC Raulston Arboretum.

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