Discover the Beauty of Sage

Not your common garden varieties—ornamental salvias add rich texture, color and fragrance to beds, borders and beyond.

| August/September 2007

  • Up close, clary sage shows its delicate side.
    Robin Siktberg
  • At just 18 inches tall, ‘East Friesland’ purple hybrid sage is ideal for edging the front of a border. Butterfly-attracting blooms appear from late spring through summer.
    Robin Siktberg
  • The bright, tubular blooms of pineapple sage draw hummingbirds and butterflies.
    Robin Siktberg
  • Silvery catmint makes a perfect partner for ‘East Friesland’ purple sage.
    Robin Siktberg
  • Brilliant color and impressive size make Mexican bush sage a landscape favorite.
    Robin Siktberg

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

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.

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