The genus Salvia is a plant collector’s dream. With some 900 species, including annuals, biennials, perennials and shrubs, as well as an immense array of scents and bloom colors, a gardener could spend a lifetime trying to grow them all—and some of us do try.
Like other members of the mint family (Lamiaceae), salvias have square stems and opposite leaves. Many have fragrant foliage and spectacular flowers, ranging in color from scarlet red to intense purple to creamy white and more. Leaf colors vary, too. Beyond the proverbial sage green, you’ll find sages with purplish-green and even variegated leaves.
The familiar culinary sage, Salvia officinalis, is a staple of the herb garden and quite handsome even in a mixed border. But if you’re looking for something special, consider these less common Salvia species. All are easy to grow and delightfully ornamental in herb gardens, mixed borders, containers and cut arrangements.
Pineapple sage (S. elegans) is aptly named: Its leaves smell exactly like pineapple when gently rubbed with the fingers. In its native habitat of central Mexico, pineapple sage grows at altitudes of 6,000 to 9,000 feet, but you don’t need to live on a mountaintop to grow it. You’ll find this salvia easy to grow at most any elevation.
Although pineapple sage can reach 4 feet tall in height, the plants usually top out at 3 feet in northern gardens. The bright scarlet, tubular flowers—borne on 8- to 10-inch bloom spikes—are just what hummingbirds love. Each spike produces 6 to12 flowers arranged in widely spaced whorls around the stem. The oval, lanceolate leaves are an attractive yellowish-green, contrasting with the plant’s dark-red, softly hairy stems and bright-red blooms.
Because pineapple sage flowers in very late summer, the blooming season is relatively brief—often just two or three weeks, depending on how early frost arrives. Even so, the wonderful scent of the leaves can be enjoyed all summer long.
In the garden, pineapple sage grows best in moist, well-drained soil and full sun, although it will tolerate a bit of light shade. If you live in Zones 8 to 10, where temperatures go no lower than 30 degrees, your pineapple sage will probably winter over. If you garden in Zones 7 or colder, grow this salvia as an annual—its foliage, fragrance and blooms make it well worthwhile. You’ll also find it easy to propagate from cuttings, division or seed.
Beyond the garden, cooks sometimes use this elegant salvia in the kitchen—the leaves add a nice tropical twist to iced tea, vinegar, marinades and salads—although S. elegans does not have GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status with the Food and Drug Administration. You can be sure that those fragrant leaves and striking flowers will make wonderful additions to a late summer bouquet.
Mexican Bush Sage
One of the most handsome members of a very handsome family, Mexican bush sage (S. leucantha) is a standout in any garden. Every part of the plant seems designed for maximum beauty—the velvety, intensely purple flower spikes; the white, softly hairy stems; and the dark grayish-green leaves with white undersides.
This impressive salvia forms a shrubby plant 4 feet tall and just as wide in only one season. The species name leucantha (which means “white-flowered”) refers to the plant’s small, individual florets, which are white and protrude from a velvety purple calyx. The flowers and calyces are arranged in tight whorls on 6- to 12-inch spikes, resulting in an eye-catching display that attracts the attention of both people and butterflies. As if to enhance its visual appeal, the undersides of its 4-inch long leaves are covered with a wooly white down that matches the white stems.
One of the pleasures of traveling to southern California is seeing this lovely salvia growing in so many home gardens and commercial landscapes. Here, and throughout Zones 7b to 10, this native Mexican plant can be grown as a perennial. Mexican bush sage blooms very late in the season, however, so gardeners in colder regions will enjoy its splendid flowers for a relatively brief time, cut short by frost.
In the garden, Mexican bush sage grows best in full sun and in ordinary but well-drained soil. It’s fairly drought tolerant. If you live in Zones 7b to 10, where this salvia is a perennial, cut the plants to the ground in late winter. In Zone 7, cover the crowns with a protective mulch, such as pine boughs, until the danger of frost has passed in spring. If you garden in Zone 6 or colder, grow Mexican bush sage as an annual. The plants can be propagated by taking cuttings.
Several attractive cultivars of S. leucantha are available. Both ‘Midnight’ and ‘Santa Barbara’ have purple flowers and calyces. ‘Santa Barbara’, however, is more compact and, at 2 ½ feet tall, more than a foot shorter than ‘Midnight’. The showy ‘Anthony Parker’, a hybrid of S. leucantha ‘Midnight’ and pineapple sage, has dark-purple flowers and can reach 4 ½ feet tall in ideal conditions.
You’ll find all of the Mexican bush sages excellent for cutting. Use both the foliage and flowers in fresh arrangements. In everlasting arrangements, the flower spikes will retain their rich hues.
For an outstanding display in the garden and vase, combine ornamental salvias with any of these complementary companions:
- Artemisia ×‘Powis Castle’
- Yarrow (Achillea spp.)
- Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’
- Cheddar pinks ( Dianthus gratianopolitanus)
- Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
- Red-hot poker (Kniphofia)
- Catmint (Nepeta spp.)
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.)
- Lamb’s-ears (Stachys byzantina)
Purple Hybrid Sage
Lest northern gardeners despair, one of the best members of the genus thrives as a hardy perennial (up to Zone 4) and actually performs better in cooler climates. Blessed with abundant colorful flowers, a compact growth habit and a reasonable adaptability to varying growing conditions, S. ×superba, commonly known as purple hybrid sage, truly earns its name. Well, one of its names. It also has been blessed with an overabundance of botanical names, causing dissension among taxonomists and confusion among gardeners. In catalogs and at garden centers, you also could find this plant listed as S. ×sylvestris or S. nemerosa.
Regardless of its botanical name, purple hybrid sage should have a spot in your garden if you are in Zones 4 through 7. While this sage did not inherit the scented leaves of its more fragrant cousins, it more than makes up the lack by its beauty and usefulness in the landscape.
This superbly ornamental sage has a long bloom season, beginning in early summer and lasting the entire season (albeit to a lesser degree) if it is deadheaded. The flowers are deep-purple, reddish-purple, bluish-purple, pink or white, depending on the cultivar. Individual flowers are quite small, but are grouped in tightly spaced whorls along the inflorescence. The flower spikes arise from a tight cluster of basal leaves, reaching 2 to 2 ½ feet in height. Like the other salvias mentioned here, the flowers make long-lasting additions to flower arrangements.
The shorter height and compact habit of purple hybrid sage make it invaluable for the front of a border, edging a path or filling empty areas around taller plants, such as roses. The purple color contrasts beautifully with yellow, pink or light-blue flowers and with silver foliage. Coreopsis ‘Moonbeam’ and Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ are especially nice companions for this plant.
Purple hybrid sage includes many attractive cultivars. Among the most popular are: ‘East Friesland’ (‘Ostfriesland’), which grows just 18 inches tall and bears royal purple flowers; ‘May Night’ (‘Mainacht’), 18 inches tall with larger purple blooms; ‘Lubecca’, a 30-inch-tall form with deep-purple flowers; ‘Blue Queen’, 18 to 24 inches tall with bluish-purple flowers; ‘Rose Queen’, rose-pink blooms on 18- to 24-inch stems; and a newer dwarf cultivar, ‘Marcus’, 8 to 12 inches tall with purple flowers.
Vying for the honors of most beautiful salvia is clary sage (S. sclarea, also commonly known as muscatel sage), a tall and impressive plant that bears its violet, blue and pinkish-white flowers on large, multi-branched stems. In early summer, when clary sage blooms, it is the dominant plant in the garden, reaching 3 to 4 feet tall. The soft green leaves are rough and hairy—and large—growing up to 9 inches long at the base of the plant and decreasing in size toward the top. Look a bit closer and you’ll see that the leaves have attractive serrated edges and prominent white veins on the underside.
A native of the northern Mediterranean, parts of northern Africa and central Asia, clary sage has become naturalized in parts of Europe and throughout much of the United States. (Note: The plant grows so readily in the United States that Washington state now lists the species as invasive and growers there are subject
Considered a biennial or short-lived perennial, clary sage flowers in its second season. The flowers and large showy bracts make a stunning combination. The flower itself is lilac or pale blue, while the surrounding bracts range from deep pink to lilac, pale pink or white. Each whorl contains two to six flowers, with the whorls spaced far apart on the tall flowering stems. If you remove the spent flowers (as you should, to keep the plant looking good), you could see a few blooms again in the fall.
Clary sage has been used medicinally for thousands of years, particularly for eye ailments. Because the seeds become mucilaginous when moistened, traditional practitioners placed the moist seeds in the eye to help clear away particles. (The common name “clary” is a corruption of “clear-eye.”) The mucilage from the seeds also has been used to draw out splinters.
Today clary sage is used chiefly for its essential oil, which is a fixative for perfumes and flavors some liqueurs and muscatel wine. The fragrance has been described in terms ranging from pleasant and lavender-like to musky, cloying and downright disgusting. You be the judge!
Regardless of its fragrance, clary sage is worth growing for its striking flowers and form alone. Plant it in a sunny spot in ordinary soil, with excellent drainage. If summer temperatures have been very hot and rainfall has been scarce, provide some extra water. And although you’ll want to remove most of the spent flowers to keep your plants looking good, let at least a few of those blooms go to seed so that you have volunteers next spring.
These are just four of the many sensational salvia species available to gardeners. If you’ve only grown standard garden sage or the common salvia sold in six-packs (S. splendens), be sure to put a few of these lesser-known beauties on your must-grow list next season.
Robin Siktberg is the Editor/Horticulturist for The Herb Society of America as well as a freelance writer and photographer. She gardens in Chardon, Ohio.