I always seem to write about Salvia at this time of year, but I just can't help it. These plants seem to be at their peak in mid to late autumn and there are just so many different colours, shapes and textures in my garden that come from these plants right now. It's hard to imagine that only 25 years ago, there were only a handful of Salvia grown in Sydney gardens, and they were generally known as 'the pink one' (Salvia involucrata 'Bethelii'), 'the purple one' (Salvia leucantha) and 'the blue one' (Salvia uliginosa , which is also the one that spreads underground like a terrible weed). Now we have literally hundreds available to us, with more arriving in catalogues every year, and the great majority of them grow brilliantly in our Sydney climate. I can only think that autumn gardens must have been rather drab before we had such a range of plants available to us. They offer such wonderful scope for colour schemes at this time of year!
Many Salvia flower on from summer into winter; others only begin to bloom when cooler weather arrives. The classic autumn Salvia include the butter-yellow Salvia madrensis (ht 1.5 - 2 m), which really makes a statement from March to June with its tall wands of flowers, even in part shade. It does creep around a bit but I would never be without it, and simply pull up any stems that have strayed too far. I enjoy seeing it nearby to gold-variegated foliage plants, such as Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus' or Euonymus japonicus 'Aureus'. Salvia leucantha (ht 1.3 m, pictured at the start of the blog)- in its purple, white or pastel pink forms - is also another iconic autumn plant (though may some years begin to flower in late summer) and gives huge splashes of colour over a lengthy period. The compact 'Santa Barbara' (ht 60 - 90 cm) cultivar makes a superb low hedge.
Attractive Salvia mexicana Lime Calyx (ht 1.3 - 2 m) is another autumn-bloomer, with its purplish-blue flowers held in lime-green calyces. In recent times I have been growing the dwarf form of this plant, called 'Little Limelight' (ht 1 m), and I am enjoying its more compact form compared to the rather sprawling larger version. Its effective to grow a lime-coloured foliage plant nearby and I have planted golden oregano beneath my 'Little Limelight' and am enjoying the colour echo this creates. I have recently heard of a new Salvia mexicana cultivar called 'Kieran', which has pale mauve in limey calyces, an interesting addition to the Salvia fold.
I have found that it is necessary to trial new Salvia before deciding if they are suitable for the garden space available, as many do grow rather large and there are only so many of these that I have room for. 'Pink Icicles' (ht to 2.5 m ) has grown far taller than I had imagined, and has had to be repositioned at the back of a border to allow it to soar to its heart's content. It is about to bloom, with lovely soft pink spires - it is related to Salvia involucrata 'Bethelii', the old classic pink Salvia.
A cultivar which I truly am currently enraptured with is 'Desley' (ht 2 m). It is similar in form to 'Purple Majesty' but has burgundy/plum-coloured flowers held in thrillingly dark calyces. It looks stunning against a backdrop of the large shrub Euphorbia cotinifolia and silver-leaved Buddleja 'Silver Anniversary'. It had a few flowers in the summer months but seems to have come into its own through autumn and is smothered with bloom at the moment. A specimen I got from the Collectors' Plant Fair last year was Salvia 'Blue Abyss' (ht 1.2 m). This is an autumn-bloomer and seems quite similar to Salvia 'Anthony Parker' (ht 1.5 m, wth to 2m), which is a stunning dark blue-flowered cultivar that forms a wide dome of bloom in April and May but does take up a lot of space. As 'Blue Abyss' seems a little more compact overall, it may be a more suitable choice for smaller garden spaces. The flowers of 'Blue Abyss' have a little more purple in their colour than 'Anthony Parker' but are held in the same dark calyces.
I am enjoying Salvia confertiflora (ht 1.3 - 2 m) now that mine is established - it has narrow spikes of rusty orange blooms, which suit the autumnal colour scheme now that the leaves of deciduous trees are finally starting to turn. The gold-leaved version of the pineapple sage (Salvia elegans 'Golden Delicious' (ht 90 cm) is still flowering, its slim red spires showing up well against the foliage. In quite a shady spot, Salvia miniata (ht 1 m) flowers actually all year round, and is particularly colourful at the moment. Another hot-hued species that I have recently planted to add to the seasonal theme is Salvia adenophora (ht 2 m) - mine has yet to flower but I have seen it in bloom in other gardens and it looks a promising one, with rich red spires.
We are fortunate to have several nurseries specialising in these plants in Sydney now. Parkers Perennials offers a good range of Salvia plants, available by mail order. To see a garden with many wonderful Salvia plants growing, visit the Budden garden at Springwood next weekend. There will be plants for sale, with proceeds going to MS Australia. See the events page for details.
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