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Salvias for Your Garden

I have a deep interest in nature, gardening, and sustainability. The local arboretum is my universe of learning, and my garden is my lab!

An example of a lovely pink salvia.  The upright multiple blooming spikes add a wonderful rhythm to your garden.

An example of a lovely pink salvia. The upright multiple blooming spikes add a wonderful rhythm to your garden.

Some Interesting Facts About Salvias

Salvia is derived from the word "sage," and the word sage is derived from the Latin word "salvis," which means "healthy" or "to heal." So many years ago, when the use of botanicals for general health maintenance was common, the word sage was adopted. Many gardeners and cooks use the term sage to describe the salvia plant. Salvia officinalis is the familiar sage used in cooking.

Salvias are in the mint family along with sage (which most people differentiate because this is the herb used for cooking). The interchangeable terms salvia/sage can be very confusing. Think of it this way: In a family tree, you have your immediate, second, and distant cousins. They are all related in some way.

Salvia is a medicinal plant, an herb used for cooking and, of course an enchanting ornamental flower. It was first recognized by Pliny the Elder and was used to tame fevers and headaches; the crushed leaves could be made into a salve for wounds and bruises. Salvia has cooling and astringent properties. This makes sense because it is in the mint family.

Being in the mint family, it is no surprise that it is used as a tea and in beauty products. There are about one thousand varieties of this plant, with salvias being the largest part of the mint family. They can be found in most of the temperate world and Mexico and South America.

Beautiful close-up view of the general structure of a salvia. Note the gorgeous dark purple calyx of this salvia cultivar.

Beautiful close-up view of the general structure of a salvia. Note the gorgeous dark purple calyx of this salvia cultivar.

The Structure of Salvia

The structure of salvia is really quite simple. It is a two-lipped, simple flower. Sometimes, but not always, the lower lip is a bit larger, and sometimes it looks like it has a couple of teeth at the top. In the salvia pictured above, the lips are about equal; the color is a clear, deep purple, and the calyxes are a coordinating darker purple, protecting the flower before it blooms and acting as a dramatic accent while in bloom.

Think of calyxes as outerwear for flowers. Salvias usually have two stamens with anthers on the ends. This is where pollen is made and when a bee lands on the lower lip, the anther bends down and deposits pollen on the pollinator, and then when the bee flies off, it takes its gift of pollen to another flower. There are usually two stamens: an upper and lower stamen, which are visible, and the reproductive organs are not outwardly visible.

Characteristics of Salvia

These are wonderful and interesting plants. They usually thrive in full to partial sun, but some like the shade. None like to be in soggy soil, and all like good drainage. One of the most compelling characteristics of salvias is that they are prolific bloomers. Plenty of perennial varieties bloom from Spring through Fall and overwinter in your garden with protection. If you are not really a perennial fan, there are many annual and biannual varieties to design your oasis with.

Salvia color is outstanding. Salvia dresses in blue very well. They have some of the best blue colors of any flower. Light blue, royal blue, ultramarine blue, and for the nonartists out there, ultramarine blue is a very rich blue with a slight undertone of purple. Speaking of purple, there are shades of darkest purple, mid-range purple, red-purple, light purple, and the softest lilac.

Salvias also look lovely covered in light peach, yellow, light orange, darker orange, red (some are dark, and some are a more tropical red), cream, and white blooms. Their stems are usually square for the most part, but some varieties have round stems. Some salvias start with square stems that become rounded with age, like humans.

The leaves of the salvia plant are a different story. Some people plant salvias just for their foliar interests. The variety of leaves can include heart-shaped, lance (two to three inches long, slender), lobed (meaning the borders of the leaves are irregular—think sassafras leaves), smooth, toothed, and some are as large as five to six inches across.

The color of the leaves can be lemon green, true green, purple, grey, silvery grey, red, and bronze. Some leaves are variegated with cream or bronze, or purple. Leaf veins stand out in many salvia plants; they are very apparent. They probably have a strong structure because the stems are a continuation of the veins with a rectangular structure. Some leaves are downright furry. You will never be bored with salvias in your garden.

Salvias are generally healthy with few, if any, pests, but as with anything, if you coddle them, they can become weak and vulnerable to pests. If you're keeping your salvias through the winter and a cold winter is coming, pine boughs around the base will protect the roots and keep the plants from heaving. Any heavyweight mulch is good as long as it is not so tightly packed air circulation cannot get through. You can also use straw or other mulch products. Pine boughs will allow for more air circulation,, but their weight will keep the roots safely underground.

Salvias habit or character of growth is, for the most part, upright. The salvia flowers open up along each shoot from the bottom up; some can grow five feet tall and others ten to eighteen inches. Shoots grow from the base of the plant. They don't branch; they usually go just straight up. Some varieties are slightly more relaxed and arch over instead of going straight up. This adds a little more interest to your garden. I tend to accept plants as they are, so if you don't like this plant, don't get this variety of salvia. As I mentioned earlier, there are hundreds to choose from.

Salvia as Medicine

The leaves of the salvia flowers have many medicinal properties. The flowers contain oils that have anti-microbial and antiseptic properties. Because salvia is in the mint family, it can help reduce inflammation and clear the mind. Do you ever feel like you are losing your memory? It might just need some help from some sage tea. How do you make sage tea? Here is a simple recipe:

You may use fresh or dried sage leaves. If using dried sage leaves, use one rounded teaspoonful of dried sage leaves. If using fresh leaves, use between ten and twelve, depending on your personal taste. Pour eight ounces of boiling water over the leaves and allow to steep for five minutes, then strain. If you like those little ball leaf strainers just use those. You can sweeten it with honey or sugar or whatever you like.

Nutritional components of salvia—and I am speaking of Salvia hispanica or chia—include thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, and folate. These are all B vitamins and excellent for keeping and maintaining energy levels. The chia flower has tiny little seeds that can be added to cooking or smoothies. The seeds are so tiny they are not noticeable in the smoothie, but your body will notice the nutritional impact of these tiny seeds.

They can be found at any greengrocer or health food store. Remember those silly little chia pets you could buy and water, and they would sprout hundreds of tiny leaves? This is the same plant. Plants have saved the world in thousands of different ways. What would we do without our botanical friends?

Sources and Further Reading

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Questions & Answers

Question: What variety of salvia tend to be more relaxed and arch over somewhat?

Answer: There are hundreds of varieties of salvia. Look for a taller variety which nd to bend slightly. Annual salvia stems are thinner than other salvia varieties and a little more flexible. Gentian salvia variety is a tender perennial with large flowers that can be grown as an annual in colder climates. Annual salvias tend to have more lax stems. Black and Blue salvia variety tend to lean over but in unison. Try the annual varieties. Although they are more tender and like a warmer climate, their stems are more flexible.

© 2018 Claudia Smaletz


Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on March 10, 2018:

Nice and detailed information about Salvia plant. I believe it is quite similar to Basil plant, or may be related to Basil group of plants. The purple flowers look beautiful.

Wasn’t aware about so many details about this useful plant. Thanks for sharing!