The genus Salvia is the largest in the botanical family, Lamiaceae (mint), with the number of species estimated to range from 800 to nearly 1,000. Salvias, commonly known as sage (not to be confused with the native Idaho sagebrush!), are easy to grow, usually right at home in sunny, well drained spots, and their toughness is matched only by their showiness. In addition, Salvia is an extremely important plant species for our pollinators. Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds love the tubular or bell-shaped flowers, which come in a wide range of colors and are borne on tall spiky racemes held above the foliage.
No matter what your gardening style, there is a Salvia to suit your needs. The most common is probably Salvia officinalis, the culinary herb sage, found in most kitchen cupboards. Outside of the kitchen, this is an ornamental, evergreen perennial which would make an attractive addition to any herb garden or perennial bed. Culinary sage comes in variety of leaf colors: from the basic grey-green, to a variegated green-gold variety, to the very attractive cultivar ‘Purpurascens,’ with green leaves variegated with purple. Culinary sages flower in shades of blue.
You can find a number of Salvia species throughout the Idaho Botanical Garden. Visit the herb garden to find the culinary variety. Many of our containers features salvias, both annual and perennial. Look for Salvia guaranitica ‘Black & Blue’ paired with dark purple-leaved sweet potato vine in containers on the Plaza. ‘Black and Blue’ is an annual cultivar that features deep cobalt blue flowers with black calyces. Flowers appear on foot-long spikes over a long mid-summer to fall bloom.
Other mixed containers on the Plaza include Autumn sage, or Salvia greggii. This salvia is native to Texas and Mexico, where it is a reliable, drought-tolerant evergreen small shrub. Here in Idaho, treat it as an annual or tender perennial, requiring protection in winter. Some cold-hardy cultivars, such as ‘Furman’s Red’ and ‘Wild Thing,’ have proven to be perennial at the Denver Botanic Gardens and have been successful here in Boise. Salvia greggii is a valuable nectar source for hummingbirds and butterflies. Red is the most common flower color, but it’s also available in pale yellow, pink, fuchsia, and white.
You will find many more salvias in the areas of the garden that feature waterwise plants. The Plant Select beds include three outstanding Salvia species. Perennial Salvia darcyi (Mexican sage) ‘Vermilion Bluffs’ grows to be an impressive shrub, about 3 feet tall and wide. It blooms throughout the summer with bold crimson red flowers and truly deserves the often used title of “hummingbird magnet.” Also in the Plant Select beds, Salvia argentea, or Silver sage, is a spectacular foliage plant, with large felt-like leaves and white flowers on dramatic candelabra-like stems. Beetles can often be found pollinating Salvia argentea, as they are typically attracted to white flowers. A third salvia, Salvia pachyphylla, is known by many common names, including blue sage, rose sage, and Mojave sage. It has beautiful, aromatic silver foliage, topped with densely whorled bracts of purple surrounding delicate violet flowers. Salvia pachyphylla flowers from summer through fall and is extremely popular with native bumblebees, but also attracts butterflies and hummingbirds. Salvia pachyphylla is also on view in the BLM Firewise Garden.
Salvia dorrii, or Desert purple sage, is the classic “purple sage” of the western United States. You can find this salvia in the Lewis & Clark Native Plant Garden. Desert purple sage has aromatic silvery foliage and showy spikes of purple and blue flowers. It is a small, woody shrub, to about 18 inches, that blooms in late spring. Salvia dorrii is an especially valuable plant for native bees.
Salvia nemorosa ‘Caradonna’ is planted in the Water Conservation Landscape, located outside the Garden’s gates along Old Penitentiary Road. This extremely showy salvia, with flowers of vivid blue held on dark purple-black stems, is popular with both butterflies and hummingbirds. Drought and heat tolerant once established, Salvia nemorosa is an early summer bloomer and is suitable for planting in beds or containers.
This is just a small sampling of the various members of the genus Salvia. They are versatile and colorful, and many are drought tolerant and low maintenance. In addition to these qualities, Salvias will attract a wide range of pollinators to your garden. What’s not to love about these remarkable plants?