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Salvias, with all their varieties, add punch to summer garden

Saturday, August 03, 2002

By Clair Dusakand Margie Radebaugh , Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens

Salvia, a genus of more than 700 species, is a wonderful group of plants for summer bloom. They include annuals, biennials, perennials and shrubs and provide a wide range of colors and plant habits.

Salvia are perfect for bedding, borders and containers and are easy to grow, provided they have full sun (at least six hours per day) and well-drained soil. (Douglass Oster/Post-Gazette)

All salvias have square stems and leaves arranged opposite each other along the stem. Flowers generally appear in spikes of blue, purple, pink, red, white or even yellow, depending on the particular variety. They are perfect for bedding, borders and containers and are easy to grow, provided they have full sun (at least six hours per day) and well-drained soil. Once established, the perennials in particular are fairly drought-tolerant. Unfortunately, many salvias are known by more than one botanical name, so both names are listed when appropriate.

Salvia splendens, commonly called scarlet sage or red salvia, is a popular summer annual bedding plant. Although the bright red varieties are the most common, there also are varieties that have white, purple, rose and salmon-colored flowers. The sturdy blue and/or white flower spikes of blue salvia (Salvia farinacea) are also familiar to most gardeners. Texas sage (Salvia coccinea) is a bushy upright with cherry-red flowers. Varieties include 'Coral Nymph,' 'Snow Nymph' and 'Lady in Red.' These annuals will bloom all summer long.

Salvia viridis (also called Salvia horminum, annual clary sage or painted sage) has small white and purple flowers complemented by attractive, long-lasting pink to pale purple bracts with darker veins. It is excellent as a cut flower and can be dried.

The annual Salvia leucantha, velvet sage or Mexican bush sage will quickly form a small shrub topped with outstanding lavender and white flowers from late summer into fall.

Growing with Phipps

This is one of a series of periodic columns by staffers of Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens. Claire Dusak is the outdoor garden manager at Phipps; Margie Radebaugh is Phipps' head of education.

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Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans or Salvia rutilans) is an annual with foliage that smells like pineapple. In late summer, if one is lucky and the frost holds off, scarlet flower spikes will appear.

Most perennial salvias also have a long bloom period. Varieties of Salvia x superba (also called Salvia nemerosa) are readily available in local nurseries. They form compact branched clumps with showy flower spikes throughout the summer. There are many nice free-flowering forms that will add a patch of color to the summer garden. 'East Friesland' is 18 inches tall and has purple flowers. 'May Night' also is 18 inches tall with dark violet-blue flowers. 'Rose Queen' has rose-pink flowers and reaches 20 to 24 inches tall. 'Amethyst' has wonderful lilac-pink flower spikes from June through August and reaches 25 inches tall. 'Blue Hill' has true blue flowers.

Silver sage (Salvia argentea) is grown for its beautiful, large, soft and woolly leaves, up to 8 inches long. The 3-foot spikes of white or pinkish-white flowers that form in mid- to late-summer are secondary. This is a biennial or a short-lived perennial, but it is well worth including in one's garden for its wonderful foliage.

Some of the less common salvias make great garden plants, too. Spanish sage (Salvia lavandulifolia or Salvia hispanica) is a woody perennial with gray to white woolly leaves and blue-violet flowers in midsummer. The perennial Salvia pratensis, meadow sage, blooms in early- and midsummer with violet, pink or white flowers. Salvia glutinosa, Jupiter's distaff, is a clump-forming, sticky, hairy perennial that blooms from early spring to mid-autumn with soft, hairy, pale yellow flowers.

The perennial Salvia officinalis, common sage, is the familiar herb often used to season turkey stuffing. Clary sage (Salvia sclarea), a biennial, also is used as a flavoring herb. For culinary use, harvest these plants before their purple or whitish-blue flowers appear. Cut the leafy stems and hang them upside down in bundles or spread them thinly on racks in a shaded, airy place to dry. When they are thoroughly dry, rub them between your palms to crumble, then store in airtight containers. Sage also can be preserved by freezing.

There is a place in most every garden for one or more of these terrific summer bloomers.

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