"Salvias revisited"

My thoughts on growing salvias have changed over the years.
Sunday, 24 March 2013     

Salvia Desley, one of my favourites

About a month ago, I gave a talk to the Cottage Garden Club in Sydney, entitled 'Salvias revisited', in which I spoke about how my ideas about these plants had changed over the five years since I had given a previous presentation on the subject. Today's blog is a summary of some of the points I made that day, as requested by a few iGarden readers.

In my younger days, I had to have any plant that was labelled 'Salvia', but as with any great infatuation, time does bring a degree of change in the way we see our beloved, as reality kicks in and we see things with less blinkered vision. I still do adore the genus Salvia, and have many growing in my garden today - but I have realised that some are better than others as new ones have come on the scene. I have also learned more about the cultivation of them over the past five years. In preparing for the talk, I surveyed a number of my gardening friends, so that I could get a broader view of the subject and I got a huge amount of useful information - most of it confirming my own thoughts, which was very reassuring. I also went to Kerry Mitchell's nursery at Kurrajong, where many Salvia can be seen growing in the lovely gardens there, and I learned much from my visit.

I am more convinced than ever that the best choice of Salvia plants for Sydney gardens is from those which come from semi-tropical regions such as Central and South America, along with Mexico. I have recently realised that the vast majority of the Salvia plants that do best in my garden come from Mexico. Interestingly, I have discovered that many of the large-leaved specimens of this type actually do better in part-shade - originally I assumed that all Salvia preferred sunny spots. Salvia that come from Europe, the Mediterranean, South Africa and California don't do well in my garden: though more dedicated gardeners who take more care of them can have better luck with them than I do! There are a few exceptions to the rule in my garden (and confirmed by my gardening friends), which I now grow: Salvia fruticosa 'Greek Skies', with lovely fragrant grey-green leaves and pretty blue flowers in spring, and herbaceous Salvia forskaohlei with its purple/blue spires, are both Mediterranean plants that do well in my garden. Salvia muirii, from South Africa, is also a good doer in Sydney - a great little groundcover for hot, dry spots.

Another change in my thinking about Salvia plants over the past few years is that I am now hesitant to recommend to home gardeners with an average-sized block the ones that get too big: either too tall or too wide - or both! I don't think I quite realised in my younger, more naive days, how big some of these plants could get. They can take up too much space, can crowd out and suffocate nearby plants, need support to stop them flopping everywhere, and are quite a challenge at pruning time. As we get older, pruning such massive plants becomes somewhat daunting, and many of these plants ideally should be pruned twice a year - after flowering and in mid-summer to try to make them more compact! Some of the big ones I think twice about now include Salvia purpurea, Salvia wagneriana, Salvia 'Anthony Parker' and Salvia involucrata 'Pink Icicles' - even though they are all stunning plants and look fantastic where there is room to grow them. Big ones I still must grow include 'Costa Rica Blue' (for its gorgeous royal blue flowers for nine months of the year), Salvia gesneriiflora 'Tequila' (for its stunning red blooms in black calyces from July to October) and Salvia dorisiana (for its wonderfully fragrant leaves and hot-pink flowers in late winter and early spring). A new one out in recent years has also found its way into my garden: Salvia involucrata x karwinskii 'Timboon', which has burgundy-pink flowers in wine-coloured calyces in late autumn and winter. Yum!

Another point to consider when choosing Salvia is to avoid where possible the ones that behave badly - for example, spreading by underground runners, such as Salvia uliginosa, Salvia guaranitica and Salvia chaemeleagnea. However, there are some Salvia that do have these tendencies that I have kept because they have redeeming qualities - such as the brilliant yellow spires of Salvia madrensis, which does need to be reined in every year to stop its spread, and Salvia leucantha, which is so drought tolerant and tough - and beautiful of bloom and leaf in all its cultivars -that I would never want to be without it. Similarly, Salvia involucrata 'Joan' will always have a place in my garden despite its stealthy spreading ways. Self-seeding Salvia also give pause for thought, and should be avoided by those who hate weeding. Salvia scabra and Salvia macrophylla have been removed from my garden because of this trait. But some of the self-seeders are indispensible in my garden:Salvia splendens in its various colours of red, pink and purple; Salvia coccinea with its haze of dainty blooms; and Salvia roscida (formerly called Salvia fallax), which lights up dry shaded areas in late winter with its cloud of tiny, pale blue flowers.

I also now avoid Salvia that have a poor shape - I can't be bothered with floppy, straggly-looking plants anymore; hence, for example, I no longer grow Salvia cacaliifolia and Salvia azurea, amongst others. However, some with an untidy habit remain in my garden, simply because I love their flowers too much: such as Salvia 'Indigo Spires' and Salvia mexicana 'Lime Calyx'.

There has been a proliferation of Salvia greggii and Salvia microphylla cultivars over the past few years - probably because they are compact, can form a weed-suppressing groundcover, and suit most garden styles. But there are almost too many - it's hard to keep up with them and many are very similar. It is unclear whether they are being properly trialled for longevity or toughness before being released. I grow very few of the new ones, sticking to the old faithfuls I have known for many years, such as Salvia greggii 'Raspberry Royal' and Salvia microphylla cultivars 'San Carlos Festival' and 'Musk Pink'.

 Reader Comments

1/7  Margaret - 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 March 2013

Thanks for your update of Salvias, which is most useful. Recently, I removed S. "Anthony Parker" and S. Phyllis"s Fancy", as they had both outgrown their allotted space, despite being chopped in half. I was amazed that they both had formed a large root mass, which had spread in a large diameter. S. leucantha also willingly spreads, but I find it is easy to control. S. Desley, a recent aquistion, has also grown and spread - its fate is still being decided! Thanks, Margaret. Yes, Desley does get rather tall and wide but I love its gorgeous flowers! Deirdre

2/7  Catherine - 2071 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 March 2013

It was an excellent talk Deirdre and so helpful to hear your Salvia recommendations for humid Sydney. I remember you mentioned a cultivar you preferred to the rather invasive Salvia elegans but can"t find it in my notes. I love the lime-gold foliage and vermillion flowers but it"s a devil to keep contained! I"ll also promote your new e-book on Salvias on GardenDrum. What a great idea! Thanks so much for doing that Catherine; I really appreciate it. I don"t think I did give a different alternative to the Golden Delicious version of S. elegans as I still grow that one. In a shaded spot, I find it doesn"t seem to spread as much and I prefer the limey colour to the brassy hue it turns in sun; However, there is S. elegans "Purple" which is a much taller shrubbier plant with lovely burgundy flowers - shown in the booklet - not a suckering version like the pineappley versions. Deirdre

3/7  Madeline - 2145 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 25 March 2013

Yes I too have Anthony Parker and he is being composted at the weekend,as he has taken over in the garden. I also have Meigans MAgic which grows fairly big but it is so pretty with gorgeous purple and white flowers and it"s just a mass of flowers and the birds just love it. I"m glad that you mentioned salvia for shade as I have a spot to fill and didn"t think of putting a salvia there, so I will give it a try. I have a few Greggii and they make a wonderful bright show and don"t get out of hand. Yes I do think Anthony Parker is just too big; but I too love Meigan"s Magic and it is looking great at the moment. Do try some of the large-leaved ones in semi-shade - they actually look happier there, as their leaves don"t wilt so much on hot days. Deirdre

4/7  Kay - 3939 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 25 March 2013

Thankyou for the article on Salvias, I wouldn"t be without mine in my sandy garden in Rosebud by the beach, and this summer has seen a huge increase in flowers which the bees love. Thanks, Kay. Good to know that they grow well in sandy areas; mine survive well in quite clayey soil. Deirdre

5/7  Jean - 4035 (Zone:11A - Sub-tropical) Monday, 25 March 2013

Yes, gone are the days when Salvias were only red. Then came the lilac and now the colors are amazing. I have two small clumps of Salvia Desley. I will certainly be looking for Costa Rica Blue. Yes it is hard to believe that so many salvias have become available in the past 20 years. Hope you can get Costa Rica Blue - it is amazing. Deirdre

6/7  Anthea - 2000 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Tuesday, 26 March 2013

What do you think about a lovely pinky color with the word -oxy in its name I missed bidding on ebay but it looked great , a sort of fuschia pink and frilly. S. oxyphora is gorgeous but can be temperamental. It needs to grow in part-shade. It may also spread by suckering so grow it in a pot or somewhere in the garden where it can"t become a problem. Deirdre

7/7  Marinka - 2041 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 08 April 2013

I have Anthony Parker confined to a large pot in one garden, & in the ground in another. Both are about the same size, maybe because the in ground one is in a shady spot which seems to slightly inhibit its growth. I"m a big fan of leucantha as it is so good for quickly filling a tough spot. I made over a neglected spot at the side of the house (a small metre square bed, hot & dry) with probably 8 small runners last August & now it"s a riot of purple perfectly matching a nearby tibouchina. Sounds fantastic, Marinka. Interesting about Anthony Parker being a bit more compact in shade. Deirdre

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