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Home > Products > Shrubs > Salvia > Too Many Salvias?

  Too Many Salvias?

By David C. Fross
Native Sons Nursery

Robert Smaus, garden editor for the Los Angeles Times, selected Salvia sinaloensis as his choice for plant of the year in 1995. He commented that he had first seen this sage growing among the coast live oaks in my garden. I was both pleased and confused by the article. Pleased that he had been introduced to Salvia sinaloensis in my garden and confused by his choice. Sulking in semi-dormancy most of the year, Sinaloa sage had never seemed to respond to the cool coastal climate of the Nipomo Mesa and I removed several plants after two disappointing years. Adding to the confusion was the description of the magenta flowers. Salvia sinaloensis has dark blue flowers.

After talking with Bob it became clear that he had seen Salvia chiapensis not S. sinaloensis growing in the shade of the oaks. Both of these Salvias are examples of the interesting and colorful new sages that have been introduced to California gardens in the last few years. Many of these introductions come to California with little relevant cultural information. Some have little merit in our Mediterranean climate while others are quickly becoming garden standards. Showy flowers alone cannot recommend these new sages and S. sinaloensis is a good illustration of a beautiful blue flowered sage with questionable garden value here on the central coast. Conversely, S. chiapensis, flourishing in the shade of coast live oaks, demonstrates the versatility found in some of these new introductions.

There are over nine hundred species of Salvias worldwide. Major centers of development in the genus occur in eastern China, Turkey, South Africa, Mexico and South America. Six hundred species are found in the Western Hemisphere alone. This rich and varied genus offers remarkable horticultural potential. A sampling of this variety is found in the three promising new Salvias that follow:

Salvia chiapensis is a vigorous broad-leaved perennial with a languid habit even in full sun. It forms a loose ball three feet high although it is usually a little taller than wide in heavier shade. Flowering is most abundant in late summer and fall but in mild climates a few blooms are present year round. Magenta flowers are held on delicate twelve inch stems and alone are enough to recommend this sage, but the broad glossy green leaves and shade tolerance are its true virtues; a perfect choice for the dry shade near oaks or along a shadowed walk on the north side of a house.

Salvia dolomitica is another fine new sage but unlike S. chiapensis has yet to find much acceptance with the gardening public possibly due to the subtle nature of this South African sage. Spring flowers, dusty lavender-pink, provide an appealing compliment to the soft gray leaves. Burgundy-rose calyx tubes persist after the flowers fall providing interesting color well into summer. Mature plants can reach four feet high and spread slowly by rhizomes eventually creating dense, olive-gray thickets. Salvia dolomitica is a perfect compliment in a sunny border filled with such Mediterranean garden standards as rosemary, rockrose and lavender.

I would have easily overlooked Salvia semi-atrata in a northern California garden had it not been for the amazing color of a few remaining flowers and a friends comment that this sage has been used in French gardens for sixty years. Budding maroon flowers open lavender-purple with a downy burgundy-black throat and crowd the stems each fall in a clouded purple haze. Small deltoid leaves dress the woody stems and some maintenance is required for Salvia semiatrata to look its best, an annual shearing or light trimming a couple of times a year. Some afternoon shade is required for this sage when used away from the coast.

Bob Smaus titled a column explaining the confusion surrounding Salvia chiapensis, "Too Many Salvias," and graciously accepted responsibility for the error although I suspect I share some fault. As Bob said, "I promise to bone up on my geography of Mexico." He humorously went on to blame the mistake on all the new Salvias in the garden centers.

Certainly there are a good number of suspect species and cultivars on the market today as some of our garden failures will attest, but Too Many Salvias To admit, "too many" would deny one of the great pleasures of gardening, discovery. Finding a new plant from dolomitic ridges in South Africa or the cloud forests of Chiapas sets the imagination spinning. We are introduced to new places by these plants and begin to see the rhythm of another landscape in the plants of our own yard.

Used with permission - © 1997 Native Sons, Inc.