Archive for Sunday, February 21, 1999


February 21, 1999


Salvia brings color to the garden from late spring through early fall. It is the perfect choice for planting in the garden if the desired effect is one with pretty, bright and long-lasting flowers. The genus salvia contains at least 900 species and, because it readily cross-pollinates, produces innumerable hybrids -- both natural and manmade. The plant can be found on almost every continent in the world. To celebrate this prolific and versatile flower the National Garden Bureau celebrates 1999 as the Year of the Salvia.

Salvia is a member of the mint family, labiatae. The plants are easily recognized by their square stems and opposite pairs of leaves, which are usually rather velvety or hairy. One of the more familiar salvias is the perennial common garden sage (Salvia officinalis) and its colorful fragrant variations. The blooms form long spiky stems. Each flower has two parts -- a colorful tube (corolla) that projects out from a surrounding "case" (calyx). The tube and collar can be the same color, shades of the same color, or completely different, as in bicolor salvias.

The history of salvia can be traced to the Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, who wrote about its healing qualities back in the first century. Much later, in the early 17th century, the English botanist John Gerard, in his famous "Herbal," described a number of sages, including common garden sage and one that sounds similar to what we now call "Tricolor" sage. Like Pliny, Gerard also referred to the healing powers of these herbs.

The plant explorations in the 18th and 19th centuries brought scores of new salvia varieties to English and European gardeners from Mexico, China and Africa. Both scarlet sage and mealy cup sage were discovered in the early 1800s, the former in Brazil, the latter in Texas. Salvia buchananii was found in Mexico by an Englishwoman who gave it to a man serving in the army. He in turn brought it back to England and gave it to an English squire named Buchanan.

Until the 19th century salvia was grown primarily for culinary or medicinal purposes. Then, its beauty made it desirable as a showy garden plant.

In the 1990s, The Dutch breeder, Kees Sahin of K. Sahin Zaden BV "tamed" Salvia coccinea found growing as a wildflower in Mexico and South America. The plant was developed to have free-flowering bright red, very full flower spikes. The plant was introduced as "Lady in Red" and won an All-America Selections award in 1992.

Gaining ground

Salvia is showing up in flower gardens everywhere. Midwestern gardeners can grow the plant easily. Salvia grows well in full sun yet, most also do nicely in partial shade. (Full sun means six or more hours of direct sun daily. Partial shade translates into an east location, where the plants will be exposed to morning sun but enjoy afternoon shade.) A western exposure may be too hot for most salvia, especially during our Kansas summers. High light can burn the flower spikes of white, coral, and salmon cultivars of Salvia splendens, changing them from white to brown. Darker colors are more resistant to sunburn.

After selecting an appropriate garden site, amend the soil by digging in a 2-inch layer of compost or peat moss before planting. Some salvia, particularly Salvia splendens, are sensitive to alkaline soil. Others, such as Salvia farinacea and Salvia coccinea, are more tolerant of it.

Once the site has been properly readied for salvia, the plants are easy to incorporate into a garden. Use the shorter dwarf salvias to edge a perennial or annual garden. Place tall salvias in front of evergreen shrubs, mass them for incredible impact or spot them around in an herb garden to complement the mostly green garden. The taller salvias (18 to 20 inches) are the best for cut flowers. Consider putting them in a separate bed designed to be a cutting garden or plant a row in the vegetable garden. Create rivers of blue or blue-and-white with Salvia farinacea "Victoria" and "Strata" along the edge of a bed.

Special uses

One of the most delightful aspects of salvias, especially S. coccinea, is that they attract butterflies. Combine red and blue cultivars with yellow coreopsis, purple petunias and yellow or pink cosmos for the start of a butterfly garden. Remember to plant in masses of at least eight or more plants of each color and type.

Salvia also does well in containers. Salvia splendens and Salvia farinacea are great candidates for growing in containers and window boxes. In either place, use a soilless mix since it is lighter in weight than other soil. Containers filled with soil and plants can be heavy. A soilless mix can save your back -- and your windowsills! As with any container plant, potted salvia needs frequent watering. Before placing them in window boxes, remember that overhanging eaves may produce some shade and also prevent rain from doing your watering for you. If you are able to meet the increased need for watering, plant away.

On the other hand, salvia needs soil that drains well -- whether it is planted in the ground or in containers. In soil that is too wet or too dry, the plants will just sit, producing no new growth or flowers. In fact, in water-logged soil, the roots may rot.

Salvias are relatively care-free, but they do need some attention once they are in the garden. Water regularly and fertilize the plant once a month with a balanced granular or water-soluble fertilizer. Then, get ready to enjoy a summer of long-lasting beauty. After all, this is the Year of the Salvia.

-- Carol Boncella is education coordinator at Lawrence Memorial Hospital. You can send e-mail to her at

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