Salvias in wintertime

Sunday, 09 August 2009

Salvia involucrata x karwinskii at Belrose Nursery

As many of you now realise, I love winter-flowering plants and I am also mad about Salvia. Luckily for me, there are lots of Salvia which bloom in winter in Sydney! So before winter disappears, I need to write about them.

For some reason, most of them are B-I-G, but there are some which are suited to more compact places. Most bloom over a long period, well into spring. As an added bonus, their flowers often attract cute Eastern spinebill birds into our gardens.

Salvia involucrata x karwinskii (shown at the start of the blog) grows big and luxuriant - to 3 m or more. Fountain-like branches of plump cerise flowers are held in dark calyces, which add a sultry effect. The flowers are a perfect match to the reddish-pink leaves of Iresine herbstii 'Brilliantissima'. Salvia wagneriana (ht 2-3m) and Salvia karwinskii (ht 2-3m) are similar types, and both have several forms, with flowers varying from pale pink and peachy pink to darker pinks. These combine well with cultivars of Camellia japonica that have similarly coloured flowers, or the lilac trusses of the winter buddleja, Buddleja salviifolia.

One of the most stunning of the bigger ones is Salvia gesneriiflora 'Tequila'. It has long, electric-red flowers held in black calyces. Its height is 2-4m and it needs support from a wall, stakes or another shrub to protect its brittle stems. It flowers from winter until mid spring and does best with plenty of sun. It combines brilliantly with other hot-coloured flowers of winter, such as poinsettia and red Camellia japonica. Dark-hued foliage plants, such as Colocasia 'Black Magic' will pick up the dramatic colour of the calyces.

Salvia elegans (Purple Form) grows to 2m or more. It has dainty burgundy flowers and its leaves take on a purplish tinge when grown in full sun. The flowers look pretty next to the big soft silvery leaves of the native plectranthus (Plectranthus argentatus, ht 1m). Salvia gravida is a stunning specimen (to 3m) with large clusters of cerise flowers hanging down like bunches of grapes, and beautifully scented furry leaves.

Salvia fallax (ht 1.5-2m) has masses of soft blue flowers on dainty spires, and can grow in shade. It remains in bloom through September and is pretty growing above orange or creamy yellow Clivia; I also have one growing next to my 'evergreen Hydrangea' (Dichroa febrifuga) which is in full bloom at the moment, with rounded heads of blooms in a similar hue. Brilliant blue flowers are found on Salvia 'Costa Rican Blue' (ht 2-2.5m) and Salvia 'Omaha Gold' (ht 2m) - the latter has gold-variegated leaves, which are very pronounced in winter and an effective contrast to its flowers.

These big salvias enjoy reasonable soil. They prefer sun, but many will still bloom well in part shade. Many are frost sensitive, so may not do so well in very cold areas. They can be kept a bit more compact by cutting them back several times: almost to the ground after flowering, and by half once or twice over summer. Their foliage forms an attractive tropical-looking background in summer and autumn.

For smaller spaces, there are some lower-growing ones in bloom through winter. Salvia rubiginosa (ht 1.5m) has rich blue blooms held in purple calyces in winter and early spring; early flowering purple flag irises or purple wallflower (Erysimum mutabile 'Winter Joy') echo the colour of the calyces if grown nearby. Pale lavender/white Salvia 'Waverly' (ht 1m), maroon Salvia 'Van Houttei' (ht 1m) and cerise Salvia chiapensis (ht 60cm) will flower year-round in Sydney gardens, so they offer blooms at this time too.

It's best to source these plants from a specialist nursery. We are most fortunate in having such an array of flowers to keep our gardens blooming in the cooler months in Sydney!