I often get asked by gardeners which plants are among my favorites. As a garden designer and lifelong plant connoisseur, that can sometimes feel like a trick question. But if someone is looking for a plant that is hardy, long-blooming, and culinary to boot, then it’s tough to beat the versatile and beautiful salvia.
Salvias, often referred to as “sages,” can play many roles in the garden, from floriferous annuals and showy perennials to delicious herbs. They often can be used interchangeably. Culinary salvias are showy enough to be used in the flower garden, and perennial salvias bloom prolifically enough to be used in containers and window boxes.
Almost all salvias need at least 6 hours of sunlight a day to bloom successfully and require well-drained soil. As an added bonus, bees and hummingbirds find them irresistible, but deer and rabbits find the scented foliage unpleasant, so they pass them up.
Have I sold you on them yet? The following are some of my favorite salvias, along with a few ideas about how you might be able to incorporate them into your flower garden — or your next salad, chicken dish or cocktail.
Salvia splendens, often called scarlet sage, is probably the salvia that most people are familiar with. It’s been around forever and is often available at big box stores and hardware stores in six packs. Hardy in zones 8 to 10, S. splendens is available in a variety of colors, such as pink, lavender, orange and white, in addition to the old standby red. And like most salvias, it’s a profuse bloomer. It is traditionally paired with other annuals such as marigolds and zinnias, too.
Salvia guaranitica “Black and Blue” — an outstanding cobalt blue — is a stunning addition to any flower garden. It’s hardy in zones 8 to 10 and can reach anywhere from 2 to 5 feet tall. Its flower spikes can be almost 12 inches long, making it easily accessible to and adored by hummingbirds. It is excellent paired with reblooming daylilies, as well as fragrant oriental lilies.
Salvia leucantha, or Mexican bush sage, is a late summer bloomer with velvety gray foliage and soft lavender blooms. Hardy in zones 8 to 10, it can reach 2 to 3 feet tall. Pair with Chinese coral cannas or ornamental grasses for a flare in the fall.
Salvia microphylla “Hot Lips” is a must for plant collectors or gardeners with a sense of humor. Its claim to fame is its unusual bi-color flowers that have the appearance of a white salvia that has been kissed by someone wearing scarlet lipstick. It can reach up to 3 feet tall and is hardy in zones 8 to 10. Beautiful paired with the bold blooming peony flowering daylilies.
Salvia greggii “Wild Thing,” or autumn sage, is a hot pink stunner hardy in zones 6 to 9. In addition to having a great name, “Wild Thing” can reach up to 2 feet tall and has a shrubby, slightly woody appearance with blooms that delight hummingbirds.
Salvia x sylvestris “May Night” is an award-winning perennial hardy in zones 4 to 9, reaching about 18 inches tall. It provides a stunning blue show in spring, then will flower throughout the summer with not-so-careful deadheading. Another feather in its cap is that “May Night” can tolerate clay soils, a bonus in gardens like mine.
Salvia nemerosa “Sensation Rose” creates a pink flower display with blooms reaching only 12 inches tall. Hardy in zones 4 to 8, “Sensation Rose” is another repeat-bloomer that will debut fresh flowers every several weeks.
Salvia nemerosa “Marcus” is a desirable blue salvia because of its diminutive size at 8 to 10 inches tall. This makes it popular at the front of the flower bed where its deep violet flowers can be appreciated throughout the season. Hardy in zones 4 to 8.
Salvia nemerosa “Blue Marvel” features the largest flower blossoms of all of the nemerosas, making it a desirable addition for the gardener who doesn’t have the time or patience for subtlety. Like “Marcus,” “Blue Marvel” also only reaches about 10 inches tall and is a vigorous bloomer even without deadheading. It is hardy in zones 4 to 9. I find it charming when combined with shorter reblooming daylilies such as “Happy Returns” or little “Stella d’ Oro.”
Salvia officinalis “Icterina,” or golden leaf sage, is as beautiful as it is delicious. It grows to 1 to 2 feet tall and wide, with leaves that are about 2 inches long and variegated with pale green and golden yellow. Hardy in zones 6 to 10, “Icterina” is drought-tolerant once established and can be used either dried or fresh in cooking. Sage is often used in chicken and fish dishes and can be added to make a savory herbal butter.
Salvia officinalis “Purpurascens” is another popular culinary salvia with dusky purple and silvery green foliage. Hardy in zones 6 to 9, purple sage grows 1 to 2 feet tall. It is beautiful paired with purple basil and lavender.
Salvia officinalis “Tricolor” outshines all the culinary sages for its showy leaves, which are purple and green outlined in a striking white margin. Hardy in zones 6 to 9, “Tricolor” can reach 12 to 18 inches tall. It can be used in any dish that calls for sage flavoring.
Salvia elegans, “pineapple sage,” is a summertime favorite because of its brilliant scarlet flowers and fruity, pineapple-scented leaves. It’s a late-summer bloomer, but I often find it in nurseries at the beginning of summer already in flower. Hardy in zones 8 to 10, pineapple sage can reach up to 4 feet tall and is often blooming when hummingbirds start migrating south at the end of summer. Its culinary uses are endless — leaves and flowers can be used in salads or added to fruit cocktails. Leaves can also be used in recipes in place of mint, adding a unique twist to iced tea, cocktails and ice cream. Or simply rub a bruised leaf around the lip of a glass of ice water for flavor. Use it with abandon.
P.Allen Smith, an author, television host, and conservationist, is one of America’smost recognized garden experts. His show Garden Home airs on AETN-2 Create TV. Check your local listings for Garden Style. Smith uses his Arkansas home, Moss Mountain Farm, as an epicenter for promoting the local food movement, organic gardening and the preservation of heritage poultry breeds. Tours may be booked at pallensmith.com/tours or by calling 501-519-5793.