Salvias are a diverse group of plants consisting of over 750 species. Several species are excellent ornamentals. The following salvias are attractive ornamentals for the home landscape.
Red salvia (Salvia splendens) is the most widely grown of the ornamental salvias. Red salvia produces masses of brilliant red flowers atop deep green foliage. White, pink, burgundy, and purple flowering varieties are also available.
Red salvias are excellent plants for annual beds and borders. They perform best in well- drained soils in full sun. Plants will bloom throughout the summer if the spent inflorescences are periodically removed.
Scarlet salvia (Salvia coccinea) is an underused annual in the home garden. Scarlet salvia produces bright red flowers on 2- to 3-foot-tall plants. The cultivar 'Lady in Red' was an All-America Selection in 1992. 'Lady in Red' is smaller (mature plants are 12 to 15 inches tall) and blooms earlier than the species.
Scarlet salvia is easy to grow. It is heat and drought tolerant. Scarlet salvia also has few insect and disease problems. It grows best in full sun and well-drained soils.
Mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea) produces narrow flower spikes atop gray-green foliage. The flowers are blue or white. Excellent cultivars are 'Victoria Blue' (violet-blue flowers, 18 inches tall), 'Blue Bedder' (blue), and 'Victoria White' (white). 'Strata' was chosen as an All- America Selection for 1996 because of its unique, bicolored blue and white flowers. 'Strata' grows 12 to 14 inches tall.
Mealycup sage performs best in moist, well-drained soils and full sun. It is heat and drought tolerant. Mealycup sage often remains attractive until mid to late October as a light frost doesn't harm the plant. Though a perennial in southern areas of the United States, mealycup sage is treated as an annual in Iowa.
While garden sage (Salvia officinalis) is a commonly grown culinary herb, several variegated forms are also attractive ornamental plants. 'Aurea' ('Icterina') grows about 18 inches tall and has green and gold foliage. 'Purpurascens' has purple foliage and grows about 24 inches tall. 'Tricolor' produces leaves of reddish purple, green, white, and pink. It grows 18 to 24 inches tall. Ornamental sages grow best in well-drained soils in full sun. Avoid wet, poorly drained soils. The variegated forms are tender perennials. They will not survive the winter outdoors in Iowa. Plants can be overwintered by taking cuttings in the fall before a hard frost.
Hardy, easy to grow perennials for borders and beds are the perennial salvias (Salvia hybrids). Perennial salvias are clump-forming plants which produce 4- to 8-inch-long, dense flower spikes of blue or purple. A few cultivars have pink or white flowers. Perennial salvias typically bloom for 4 to 6 weeks in late spring to early summer. If the plants are cut back after flowering, they will often bloom again in late summer. Home gardeners can choose from several excellent cultivars. 'Blue Hill' ('Blauhuegel') produces true blue flowers on 20-inch-tall plants. 'Blue Queen' ('Blaukonigin') produces blue-violet flowers on plants that are 24 inches tall. 'East Friesland' ('Ostfriesland') has dark violet flowers on a compact, 18-inch-tall plant. 'May Night' ('Mainacht') was chosen as the 1997 Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association. 'May Night' has a stiff, upright growth habit. It grows approximately 18 to 24 inches tall and produces spikes of deep indigo-blue flowers. 'Purple Rain' is a Dutch introduction with coarse, arrow-shaped leaves and purple flowers. While most perennial salvia cultivars have blue to purple flowers, 'Rose Queen' has rose-pink flowers. 'Snow Hill' produces white flower spikes on plants 16 to 20 inches tall.
Perennial salvias perform best in moist, well-drained soils and full sun. They have few serious insect or disease problems. They can be propagated by division in the spring.
This article originally appeared in the June 5, 1998 issue, pp. 70-71.