Salvias in autumn

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Summer-flowering salvias have a renewed flush in autumn

Those who know me know that I have been mad about salvias for a very long time. I still do adore them but my plant choices have changed over the years since this blog was originally written (May 2009), so this week, I have decided to update the blog and note how my thoughts have changed over the years about certain salvias, and add in a few extra ones that have joined my garden in the intervening years. I would love to hear about readers' favourite salvias that are blooming at this time of year!

Autumn is the very best season for these wonderful plants: all of the summer-blooming ones, such as violet 'Indigo Spires', maroon 'Van Houttei', cerise 'Wendy's Wish' (and the other 'Wish' specimens), bright pink 'Joan', bluish-white 'Phyllis' Fancy', white and lilac 'Waverly', bright blue 'Marine Blue', purple 'Amistad', rich blue 'Omaha Gold' and Salvia guaranitica Large Form, along with the many Salvia microphylla cultivars and hybrids, have a renewed flush of flowers when the cooler weather arrives. I am getting increasingly fond of these more compact salvias, as I am finding the larger ones take up too much room! This year I am going to prune these latter types in May instead of my usual August time, to see if they might flower earlier in spring.

Salvia iodantha

These salvias are joined by an entourage of others which only begin their blooming season in autumn, bringing new life and vibrant colour to the garden at this time. Some are tall, needing lots of space, such as Salvia iodantha (ht 3-4 m) with its feathery magenta flowers, and Salvia purpurea (ht 3 m) with its haze of lavender-violet blooms. They both start flowering in late autumn. I loved these two salvias for many years, when they were intertwined amongst some Camellia sasanqua, a tree daisy (Montanoa bipinnatifida) and a tree dahlia (Dahlia imperialis) where they formed a wild mixture of swaying blooms which delighted me every time I looked at that spot in autumn. However, I eventually found these giants needed too much work in cutting back, and took up too much space, and they have all gone, along with their companion plants - apart from the camellias. However, cuttings from those salvias live on in gardens of my friends with acreages, which is a comforting thought.

Salvia madrensis with Kniphofia ensifolia

On a slightly smaller scale, but still needing a fair amount of space, is the bright yellow Salvia madrensis (ht 1.5-2 m), which will grow quite well in part shade and looks fabulous nearby yellow-variegated foliage plants such as Euonymus japonicus 'Aureus' or Miscanthus 'Zebrinus'. It creeps around a bit so you need to keep an eye on that, but I would never be without its wonderful splodges of yellow in autumn, which last for at least three months. 'Anthony Parker' (ht 1.5-2 m) has inky blue spires, forming a rounded dome smothered in flowers. I discovered over time that you do need to have the room for this one, as it grows quite wide and can smother other plants, so in the end it too went to a friend's garden; I didn't feel it flowered long enough to justify the space it occupied. In its place, I put 'Meighan's Magic' (ht 1.4 m), also quite a wide plant but one which flowers for a longer time, with spectacular white blooms held within dark blue calyces. Suckering pineapple sage (Salvia elegans, ht 2 m) has bright red flowers and can become a bit invasive: I got rid of it early on but I have kept the gold-leaved cultivar of it called 'Golden Delicious', which has the same flowers matched with stunning foliage, and so far this one hasn't spread too badly.

Salvia mexicana Lime Calyx

Salvia mexicana Lime Calyx (ht 1-2 m) is a stunning salvia, with purplish-blue flowers held in lime bracts. It looks brilliant with a lime-leaved foliage plant nearby, such as Acanthus mollis 'Hollard's Gold' or Lysimachia nummularia 'Aurea'. There is a compact version of this Salvia called 'Little Limelight' that only gets to 1 m, apparently.

A very beautiful autumn-blooming species is Salvia semiatrata (ht 1-2 m) which has bicoloured flowers of deep violet and lavender, held in pretty dusky purple calyces. The small leaves are attractively textured. In some gardens (not mine) it flowers almost constantly. It needs a bit of trimming through the growing season to keep its shape neat. Bright pink Bethel sage (Salvia involucrata 'Bethellii') which grows to about 1.5 m, also comes out in autumn and looks eye-catching with silver or purplish foliage plants.

Salvia leucantha White Velour with Miscanthus Variegatus

Salvia leucantha (ht 1.3 m) has been around for a long time and its velvety purple flowers are quite dramatic in autumn. One form has white flowers held within purple calyces, the other is all purple. It does tend to flop around a bit as the season wears on; 'Santa Barbara' is a good upright and compact form, which grows to only 60-90 cm and makes an excellent low hedge or a pot specimen. In 2008, two new cultivars of Salvia leucantha were released: the all-white 'White Velour' and the pale pink and white 'Pink Velour', which grow to around 1 m. These have proved over time to be good plants but I probably still love the original purple one and 'Santa Barbara' the best. They are incredibly robust plants and a last year, our local garden club planted some clumps in our village park around the war memorial where the Anzac Day ceremony is held each year. This year, alas, there was no service held, but they looked amazing on the day. I hope they will be just as good next Anzac Day.

An autumn scene with Salvia Anthony Parker in the foreground at Belrose Nursery

Salvias mix in well with many other types of plants: in cottagey styles with autumnal roses, Camellia sasanqua, Pentas and Japanese windflowers; or in tropical gardens with bold foliage plants, Dahlia, Canna, Plectranthus and Tibouchina. Those with blue, purple or hot-coloured flowers associate well with autumn foliage. Many of them look spectacular with ornamental grasses, as the shape of the grass foliage seems to be echoed in the curving flower spires of the Salvia.

This blog was first posted on 3 May 2009; updated 10 May 2020.