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
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
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
Used with permission - © 1997 Native Sons, Inc.