The salvias include 700 species of annual, biennial and perennial herbs and shrubs of the mint family. They come from tropical and temperate regions throughout the world. Their aromatic foliage and bright flowers in a rainbow of shades have been cherished since ancient times.
Salvia officinalis, the garden sage, is a famous culinary herb with very fragrant flowers considered sacred by ancient Romans. The name salvia is Latin for “healthy” as some species were used medicinally to increase longevity and in the digestion of fatty foods.
Chinese so valued the herb that during the 17th Century Dutch traders could trade a single chest of sage leaves for three of high quality tea! Bees transform sweet salvia nectar into a high quality honey with a distinctive flavour and medicinal values.
Today most species are grown for colourful, hardy, low maintenance ornamentation. The many hybrids of S. splendens make excellent bedding, border and container plants. Bonfire is the best known species now available in purple, pink, white, orange, yellow as well as glowing red shades.
S. elegans, Pineapple Sage, has red spikes and aromatic foliage with a pineapple scent. For exquisite blue shades try Bog Sage, S. ulinginosa, S. patens (Gentian Sage), S. farinacea (Mealy Cup Sage), and S. leucantha (Mexican Bush Sage). Rosy Leaf Sage has pink flowers like penstemon. S. Madrensis produces giant yellow spikes.
Salvias prefer light, dry, well-drained, alkaline soils in full sun to part shade. Poor, drier soils produce better plants than overly rich, wet soils. Cut back stems after flowering. Replace plants every few years. Seed, cuttings and root divisions can be started now.
Sachets of dried leaves, especially pineapple and garden sage, discourage insects in the linen closet. When burned over embers or steamed they create a natural room deodorant which is antiseptic and antifungal.
Most species create fast growing, hardy hedges and are valuable in borders and between shrubs or near pathways for fragrance and colour almost all year, but especially late summer and autumn.
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