Salvia is a huge and varied genus of perennials and small shrubs with origins around the world. Collectively known as meadow sage, these species have characteristically blue-purple flowers in dense spikes and thrive in dry situations – very dry. All have a distinct herby smell, reminiscent of the common culinary and medicinal sage, S. officinalis. For gardeners, meadow sages have a very useful characteristic: not only do they perform spectacularly well in a short growing season, they do so again later on in the year. In continental climates, they flower in early summer after a period of rapid growth in spring, but by late summer salvia tend to become dormant. Here in the UK, where summer frequently gives enough moisture for growth to continue you can cut them back and wait for a second flowering in late summer. With a compact habit and reasonably tidy good looks after flowering, they make ideal border plants and on dry soils will co-exist successfully with rough grass.
How to grow salvias
Full sun is essential for growing salvias, although some species show tolerance of shade, especially at lower latitudes. In the right conditions most species and cultivars will live to more than ten years, although this is not always the case. It’s possible that less-than-perfect drainage and high fertility may shorten their life span. Salvias are tolerant of drought, and although they die back early in very dry summers, they may re-grow with cooler, wetter, autumn weather. They flourish on poor stoney soils, with a tolerance of alkalinity, making them useful for soils containing building rubble. However, they’ll also do well in average-to-fertile and most, but well-drained soils.
If cut back moderately after their first flowering, most cultivars will repeat flower in late summer. All may be easily propagated from cuttings, pulled carefully off the crown, as growth begins in spring. Seed also germinates easily, but the plants may not breed true. Salvias are generally pest and disease free, but in climates with hot and humid summers, they may suffer from fungal diseases. They are prone to slug and snail damage.
Recommended Salvias to grow in the garden
Salvia microphylla ‘Cerro Potosi’
This tough salvia can hold its own in the garden, even in quite heavy soil. Come spring it looks a little sad, but with a light prune to tidy it up and encourage new growth, it quietly recovers and goes on to produce a wonderful show through the summer well into autumn. The vivid, magenta flowers are small but numerous and carried on stiff twigs well above the scented foliage.
Height 1.3m. Origin Mexico. Conditions Any rich soil that is not saturated; full sun. Hardiness RHS H4. Season Summer – autumn.
Salvia pratensis ‘Indigo’
The meadow clary is one of two salvia species native to the British Isles, with blue flowers. In recent years, seed companies have offered a range of colour forms from white and pink to blue and purple. Salvia pratensis ‘Indigo’ was raised by Thomas Carlile at Loddon Nurseries in Twyford, Berkshire. It has a rosette of foliage and rather lax flower stems with a form resembling an upside-down pyramid so its top is wider than its base. The violet-blue, flower spikes are large for this species and very attractive to bees. This cultivar is raised by cuttings.
Height 90cm. Origin Europe. Growing conditions Well-drained soil; sun. Hardiness RHS H7, USDA 7a-11. Season of interest Summer.
Salvia leucantha ‘Purple Velvet’
Salvia leucantha is a vigorous, tender salvia, rather late-blooming. It makes a mound of long, felted, grey leaves, usually nearly a metre high and wide by September when the flowers begin to emerge. In October it is a fountain of purple. The flowers are actually white, but the calyxes and the whole flowering stem are covered in furry purple velvet, making the long arching flower stem look like scrunched up purple and white chenille, totally surreal. ‘Purple Velvet’ is all purple, less shocking but easier to use in the garden.
Height 1m. Growing conditions Full sun, frost free. Hardiness USDA 8a-10b. Origin Mexico and Central America. Season of interest September – October.
Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’
To achieve a full display of these late-flowering salvia (flowers in November) requires a fine summer and a mild, frost-free autumn. Inky purple flowers present in classic hooded structure, contrasted by generous felted foliage. However, perched aloft stems of nearly 3m tall they are sadly beyond easy appreciation. By planting out on rich, moist ground alongside a pool, and training up bamboo supports to reach a cantilevered balcony, we have found a way of admiring the magnificent blooms face to face.
Height Depending on treatment and conditions, but potentially up to 280cm. Origin South America. Soil Deep, well-nourished soil. Season August – November
Salvia greggii ‘Stormy Pink’
Around 20 years ago nurserywoman Derry Watkins, owner of Special Plants, found an accidental seedling in her nursery. She grew it on, took cuttings and then, assuming it was tender, left it in the garden to die. Surprisingly, it is still there, not fazed in the slightest by hard winters. Derry cuts it hard, back to thick stems like bonsaied tree trunks every spring and it grows to around four feet every summer, blooming from June right through until October. Derry named it ‘Stormy Pink’ because of the grey calyx that appears behind each one of the creamy pink flowers.
Height 1m. Growing conditions Sun and drainage. Hardiness RHS H5, USDA 7. Origin Seedling from Special Plants. Season of interest June – October.
Giant pots of this, threaded informally between specimen Agapanthus praecox creates an exuberant floral display which lasts into October. It may not be winter hardy, but the rate and quality of growth in a single season merits better recognition for summer display. Stems are covered in a rash of scarlet hairs that define the elegant profile and each carry a succession of coral-red flowers in ascending whorls. Even when flower petals drop, the dark red calyces will command admiring glances. Cuttings taken at the end of summer can be over-wintered for next year.
Height 150cm. Origin Native to South America/Brazil. Soil Free-draining loam, or perfect for pots. Season July to September.
Salvia ‘Phyllis’ Fancy’
Although many salvias come into flower earlier than ‘Phyllis’ Fancy’, none have a nicer colour in late autumn. The colour seems to deepen as temperatures fall. The lavender-blue flowers, which have a whitish lip, are set off by inky-blue brachts. If you plant your overwintered pot in the open ground in spring, you will have a gorgeous clump come autumn laden with flowers. This can mean that it’s difficult to find a shoot without flowers for taking autumn cuttings, but with some luck the original plant will survive if the winter is not too cold.
Height 1.2m. Origin Mexico. Growing conditions Best grown in a pot in a warm, sunny spot. Over winter indoors. Hardiness RHS H4, USDA 9b-11. Season of interest Autumn.
This cultivar, which was found by plant expert Ronaldo Uria in an Argentinian garden – Amistad means friendship in Spanish – is one of the best salvias. Deep, purple-blue flowers sprout from almost-black calyxes on long, dark stems. Both the young plants, 1m tall, and older ones, up to 1.5m tall, all flowered profusely from July right through October. The vigorous bushy plants are self-supporting with glossy green leaves.
Height 1-1.5m. Growing conditions Full sun, good drainage. Hardiness USDA 8a-11. Origin Cultivar found in Argentina. Season of interest June – October.
Salvia greggii ‘Icing Sugar’
All the Salvia gregii cultivars flower over a long period. Although there is never a mass of flowers they continue throughout summer. Dozens of new forms are being introduced at the moment. I like this one for the complementary colours of its dark pink and pale pink flowers. Lots of claims are made about the hardiness of this plant but given they have not survived the past two winters, take cuttings at the end of the summer, or treat them as an annual and buy new plants each year.
Height 50cm. Origin Garden hybrid. Conditions Sun or part shade in well-drained soil. Season Flowers from June until the end of September.
The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Salvias by John Sutton (David & Charles, 1999). Definitive guide but now out of print. Try second-hand book shops for a copy.
Where to buy
Ashwood Lower Lane, Ashwood, West Midlands DY6 0AE.
Tel 01384 401996, ashwoodnurseries.com
The most extensive stock of ready-to-buy salvia plants in the country.
Great Comp Garden, Sevenoaks, Kent TN15 8QS.
Tel 07887 997663, dysonsalvias.com
John and Lynsey’s Plants
An outstanding garden and the UK’s widest selection of salvias, usually available to order through propagation. Open by appointment – and for the National Gardens Scheme.
2 Hillside Cottage, Trampers Lane, North Boarhunt, Hampshire PO17 6DA.
Tel 01329 832786, no website
Other good sources
The Beth Chatto Gardens
Elmstead Market, Colchester, Essex CO7 7DB
Tel 01206 822007, bethchatto.co.uk
Cotswold Garden Flowers
Browns’ Nurseries, Gibbs Lane, Offenham, Evesham, Worcestershire WR11 8RR
Tel 01386 833849, cgf.net
Shibden Hall Road, Halifax, West Yorkshire HX3 9XA
Tel 01422 203553, dovecottagenursery.co.uk
Larch Cottage Nurseries
Melkinthorpe, Penrith, Cumbria CA10 2DR
Tel 01931 712404, larchcottage.co.uk