With its heat and drought tolerance and ease of growing, salvia is a plant family riding a wave of popularity in gardens. Salvias are small, shrubby perennials that range in height from around 30cm high up to more than 2-3m, but most grow to a manageable 1m high and wide.
They suffer few pests or diseases and are easy to maintain with occasional pruning. Some species sucker, for example the blue-flowered bog sage (Salvia uliginosa), but most do not become weedy or invasive.
Most salvias bloom from spring to autumn but, as there are winter flowering species, it’s possible to have salvias in flower year round. They bloom in a range of colours including tones of blue, purple, red, pink, orange, yellow, lime, cream and white. Many varieties have contrasting calyx and flower colours, which adds to their appeal. The calyx is the part of the flower that protects the bud and, in the case of salvias, often forms the decorative base to the tubular flower. ‘Lime Calyx’ for example has an electric-blue flower held in a striking lime yellow calyx.
They are part of the aromatic mint family (Lamiaceae) and some have aromatic foliage including culinary sage (S. officinalis) and pineapple sage (S. elegans), which has pineapple-scented leaves and red flowers. As well as looking and smelling good to us, the tubular flowers of salvias are attractive to beneficial insects and small nectar-feeding birds.
Salvias hybridise readily and new forms may appear in gardens. Current breeding work is concentrated on developing salvias that are compact and floriferous with interesting flower and calyx colour.
‘Wendy’s Wish’, is a magenta-flowered hybrid variety of Salvia buchananii with maroon stems. This variety has helped boost the popularity of salvias. It is an Australian variety that is now grown around the world. Wendy Smith discovered the original plant in her garden at Rosebud, Victoria. ‘Wendy’s Wish’ is long flowering with coloured calyces that persist, extending the flowering interest. It grows to around 80cm high and wide.
It has given rise to two more in the Wishes Series. ‘Ember’s Wish’ has red and purple flowers while ‘Love and Wishes’ has purple flowers. All plants in the Wishes Series help raise money for Make-a-Wish Australia, a charity that grants the wishes of sick children.
Salvias in the Wishes Series are all easy care and long flowering and an ideal choice to get your love affair with salvias.
Also newish is a striking blue and black flowered salvia known as ‘Black and Blue’. It has large blue flowers with black calyces. It makes a striking garden plant.
Grown for clear flower colour and dense compact growth are salvias in the So Cool Series, a variety of Salvia microphylla. The flowers are large and come in various tones of purple. Salvia So Cool Lilac has pale lilac flowers, So Cool Purple has mid-purple flowers while So Cool Violet has deep purple flowers. All flower from spring right through summer and are both drought and frost tolerant. Plants grow to around 70cm high and wide, and pruning after a flush of flowers will help both to keep them compact and to encourage another spurt of flowering.
Also grown for a compact habit and good garden performance is the Heatwave Series of Salvia microphylla. These flowers come in tones of magenta pink, red and white to had a bright bold note to gardens. There are 10 different colours including ‘Heatwave Blaze’, with dark red flowers, ‘Heatwave Brilliance’, which has magenta flowers and ‘Heatwave Glare’ with shimmering white flowers. As befits their name, all thrive in hot garden positions and once established are drought tolerant. The plants grow around 70cm high and about 1m wide. Prune to maintain their compact shape and to encourage more flowers.
Salvias are very adaptable and tolerate a range of soils, but grow best in well-drained soil. In the garden, mass salvias together or combine them with other perennials including ornamental grasses, iris and roses. Allow plenty of space for large growers or select smaller growers, which can also be grown in containers. Maintain their size and spread with regular pruning. Water well as plants establish and during long, hot or dry spells. Fertilise annually in spring as new growth returns.
They grow best in full sun, but some varieties can cope with part to full shade. In areas with cold, frosty winters, select frost-tolerant varieties including those in the So Cool Series.