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, Salvia. officinalis. For gardeners, salvias 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.
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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 salvia 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.
The best salvias to grow in the garden
From William Dyson’s Dyson Salvias at Great Comp Garden
Address Great Comp Garden, Comp Lane, Platt, Near Sevenoaks, Kent TN15 8QS. Tel 07887 997663. Open Daily, 1 April to 31 October, 11am-5pm. Also offers mail order.
A perennial species from Bolivia with striking velvety flowers that have a sweet scent. It will grow in sun or part shade but keep it out of windy places as the stems are brittle. 1m. RHS H3.
Salvia bullulata ‘Blue Jade’
A pale-blue almost turquoise form of a rare and variable species from Peru. William has likened its colour to the jade vine Strongylodon macrobotrys and suggests growing it in partial shade. 60cm. RHS H2.
Salvia ‘Crazy Dolls’
A compact, shrubby salvia bred in Belgium with a two-tone flower. The bottom lip is pale pink and the upper part of the flower magenta. 60cm. RHS H4.
Salvia ‘Flower Child’
One of the smallest forms of Salvia microphylla. The candy-floss pink flowers appear from July to October. 40cm. RHS H5.
Shrubby salvia similar to the popular Salvia ‘Hot Lips’ with flowers that are bicoloured in the height of summer and are either all pink or all white early and late in the season. 90cm. RHS H5.
A straggly plant with aromatic silvery foliage, slightly stick-like stems and almost-black flowers. A tender perennial that needs mollycoddling over winter. The crushed foliage smells of blackcurrant. 50cm. RHS H2.
Salvia ‘Amethyst Lips’ (=‘Dyspurp’)
The bicoloured flowers are sometimes completely purple, other times entirely white, creating a striking effect reminiscent of S. ‘Hot Lips’. Raised by amateur
plant breeder David Dyson. 1m. RHS H4.
A shrubby, suckering plant found at the De Hessenhof nursery in the Netherlands. A floriferous plant, the flowers are a dark maroon-purple with a smoky sheen. 75cm. AGM. RHS H5.
Recently developed in Argentina, the silky purple-red flowers and dark calyces were a breakthrough in Salvia guaranitica hybrids, which are usually a shade of blue. 90cm. RHS H3, USDA 8a-11.
Salvia corrugata ‘Bright Lights’
A fast-growing shrub with aromatic foliage and whorls of violet-blue flowers at the end of the summer. Unlike most salvias, it prefers moist soil. Best grown in a pot and overwintered inside. 90cm. RHS H3.
Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’
A popular hybrid with long spikes of dark-blue flowers and grey-green foliage. Often needs to be staked to prevent flopping over. Flowers all summer but at its best in autumn. 1.2m. RHS H3.