Brian Minter: Salvias are one of our most treasured garden plants

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Opinion: True perennial salvias have really exploded in popularity over the past few years.

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One of our most treasured garden plants happens to be one of the largest members of the mint family, which includes over 900 species from around the world.

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Salvias, also known as Sage lamiaceae, play a wide range of roles – from a culinary flavoring to one of our finest ornamental garden perennials and annuals. Most varieties are tender.

The three most relevant species in gardens today are Salvia nemorosa from Eastern Europe and Asia, Salvia officinalis or garden sage, our traditional culinary favorite, and Salvia sylvestris. Other hardy perennial salvias, such as S. coccineas (the semi-tropical from Mexico) and S. farinacea, also contribute significantly to our “annual” summer gardens.

They all share many similarities. If you check carefully, they have square stems, whorls of two-lipped flowers spaced along the flower stalks and resemble a dense spike. Available in a range of colors from reds, lavenders, purples and blues to salmon, whites and yellows, they can create a diverse garden display. Most salvias have fragrant foliage and attract pollinators, hummingbirds and butterflies, making them invaluable garden plants.

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Proven Winners Rockin' Salvias are sensational plants for containers or flower beds.
Proven Winners Rockin’ Salvias are sensational plants for containers or flower beds. Minter Country Garden

All salvias need good air circulation to prevent mold and other fungal problems. Once established, most salvias are heat and drought tolerant, but require deep, thorough watering to continue flowering. Oddly enough, they don’t like a hard waist. However, more strategic and careful pruning will encourage new growth which will both improve their overall appearance and encourage some repeat blooms.

As annuals, reliable hardy perennials or tender perennials, salvias make a huge contribution to our gardens right now. By far the most popular salvia is S. farinacea. It’s a great focal point in many gardens right now, and it works just as well in containers as it does in ground beds. The best known is the Victoria series, which has beautiful blue or white flowers, and resists well until October frosts. There are many other varieties grown from seed, such as the dwarf S. Rhea, S. Strata, and the dark blue Evolution series. All are great garden performers and attract pollinators.

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One of the more recent introductions is an interspecies series called Big Blue. Growing up to three feet, it puts on a continuous show of dark blue flowers and tolerates both heat and drought. It is also an excellent attractor of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

Even though traditional red, white, and lavender salvias have drastically declined in popularity, primarily due to slug and insect problems, they will tolerate hot summer conditions. They are being replaced by many new favorites, like the Rockin’ series from Proven Winners. These new hybrids are perhaps some of the most spectacular and tallest annuals, often reaching as high as 24 to 30 inches. Their large, showy flower heads come in several colors, including blue, fuchsia, and purple, and they, too, attract hummingbirds. This series offers real thrillers for container plantings and can anchor very impressive flower bed displays. Both heat and drought tolerant, the Rockin’ series will add cool vigor from mid-summer through fall.

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One of the most intriguing blue salvias is the Dummen Orange introduction called Hummingbird Falls. It grows up to three feet tall; blooms all summer with massive blue-violet flowers; and yes, hummingbirds love it. It needs to be grown in a large container to really put on a show.

Some of the new types of S. coccinea are causing a stir. Two of the most interesting are Summer Jewel and the Hummingbird series. Both grow to about 20 inches tall, bloom well into fall, and are excellent choices for containers. Hummingbirds are attracted to the flowers, and later in the summer, goldfinches are attracted to the seeds.

There are many tender perennial salvias that deserve some attention in our gardens. Dummen Orange in the Netherlands introduced a Heatwave series which, as the name suggests, is very heat and drought tolerant. Available in many shades of pink, as well as salmon, white, blue, and red, these varieties bloom continuously through summer and fall, and have a lovely rounded habit. They are super pollinator attractors – the vibrant colors of pink and red are very attractive to hummingbirds.

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There are many other hybrids that thrive in heat and just pop up in summer gardens. Salvia Hot Lips, with its unique white and red bi-color flowers, has become a much-requested favourite.

True perennial salvias have really exploded in popularity over the past few years. Led by older nemorosa varieties, like Caradonna and May Night, there are so many new varieties in all sizes that it’s hard to keep track. The compact Marvel series, especially the pink varieties, have a much longer rebloom period.

The Scentsation series is also a compact variety, reaching around 12 inches in height with a wide selection of colors including soft blue, pink and white. It is also a good repeat bloomer.

Proven Winners has a beautiful collection, called S. Color Spires, in an assortment of vibrant colors. They are a bit taller, around 18 to 20 inches, and they have basal branching, so you get a nicely rounded plant.

Beyond the few I have mentioned, there are many other varieties of salvia available, but suffice it to say that all salvias of all species are making wonderful contributions to our gardens now and throughout of summer. Pollinators, butterflies and hummingbirds will frequent gardens that have them, and it’s good to know that summer heat won’t detract from the beauty of salvias or hamper their performance.

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