Salvias (also known as sages) are popular garden plants because they flower for an extended period and do well in hot, dry conditions. They provide an incredible variety of fragrance, bloom, plant habit, and color. Salvias have brilliantly colored flowers, square stems, and attractive, often scented foliage. As some of the best summer-blooming annuals and perennials, salvias can be used for mass plantings, borders, containers, accents, and cut flowers. One benefit of growing salvias is their appeal to hummingbirds, butterflies, and other pollinators. Salvias are also deer and rabbit resistant due to their pungent foliage.
The genus Salvia exhibits a wide range of forms and habits; however, most species grow rapidly. Some species reach 5 to 6 feet within a season, while others grow low enough to be used along flower bed edges. Depending on the species, salvias range in width from 12 inches to 4 feet.
Most salvias prefer full sun and well-drained soils, but some will bloom well in part shade. Once established, most salvia species are quite drought-tolerant and require little care. Excessive water and fertilizer can increase fungal disease problems for salvias. Most salvias prefer slightly acidic soils. The best time to plant salvias is in spring after the danger of frost is passed. For best results, amend the soil prior to planting according to the results of a soil test. For more information on submitting a soil sample for testing, see HGIC 1652, Soil Testing. In the absence of soil test results, apply a slow-release fertilizer formulated for annuals when planting annual salvias. Incorporate the fertilizer into the soil according to package instructions. Many perennial salvias will grow well without supplemental fertility if sited in a well-prepared soil containing compost. For more information on preparing the soil for a perennial garden, see HGIC 1153, Growing Perennials.
Divide perennial salvias in early spring when new growth begins. During the summer, remove the faded bloom spikes of salvias to encourage continuous flowering. When perennial salvias go dormant, leave the stems intact. To avoid freeze damage, wait for new growth to begin in early spring before pruning.
Gardeners can start both annual and perennial salvias indoors from seed. Sow seeds of the annual Salvia splendens indoors 6 to 8 weeks before planting time. Do not cover the seeds with soil since they require light to germinate. Expect germination to occur in 12 to 15 days. Start other salvias from seed 12 weeks before planting time and follow packet instructions regarding sowing depth. Some perennial salvias may be sown directly in the garden according to packet instructions.
Salvias have few problems when grown in ideal conditions. Diseases most commonly occur in greenhouse production or under cool, wet weather conditions. Insect pests are a more likely problem in greenhouses. Potential problems for salvias include damping-off of seedlings, stem and root rots, powdery mildew, Botrytis blight, aphids, spider mites, and whiteflies. For more information on addressing these problems, see factsheets HGIC 2771, Insecticidal Soaps for Garden Pest Control, HGIC 2049, Powdery Mildew, and HGIC 2100, Gray Mold (Botrytis Blight).
Species & Cultivars
With over 900 species of Salvia, there are far too many to list more than a few popular types. Many of the tender perennial species can overwinter in the warmer growing conditions near the coast and are popular as annuals in the upper part of South Carolina where they are not fully hardy.
Annual Salvias: Some Salvia species commonly grown as annuals are listed below. In some cases, they may also be grown as perennials in warmer areas of South Carolina.
Bedding Sage (Salvia splendens): Bedding sage is probably the most commonly grown ornamental salvia species. The standard color is brilliant scarlet red, but S. splendens also comes in purple, orange, lavender, salmon, and white. This annual salvia grows from 8 to 30 inches tall with large flower spikes held above dark green, heart-shaped leaves. They are ideal in full sun but can also tolerate partial shade.
- ‘Bonfire’ (‘Clara Bedman’) These scarlet-spiked plants grow uniformly to 26 inches tall.
- ‘Salsa®’ series exhibits intense colors and good flowering and does well in South Carolina. They grow 12 to 14 inches tall in scarlet and a mix of colors.
- ‘Lighthouse’ has large plants, reaching up to 24 inches tall, and comes in purple and red.
- ‘Vista™’ series offers lavender, purple, red, rose, salmon, white, and red/white bicolor blooms on tidy plants that reach up to 12 inches tall.
Gentian Sage (Salvia patens): Large, intensely brilliant true-blue flowers top 12 to 18-inch tall sprawling plants. It grows well in full sun and well-drained soil, in containers or the open ground. ‘Cambridge Blue’ is a lighter blue cultivar.
Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans): Pineapple sage is cold hardy in USDA hardiness zone 8 but is usually grown as an annual. It has edible, bright red flowers in late summer. When rubbed, the leaves have a pineapple fragrance, and the bushy plants grow about 4 feet tall. The cultivar Proven Accents® Rockin‘®‘Golden Delicious'(PP#17,977) has chartreuse foliage.
Mealycup Sage (Salvia farinacea): This popular bedding salvia has been around for many years. Small violet, blue, or white flowers in 10-inch long spikes top 2- to 3-foot tall plants. Mealycup sage is cold hardy in USDA hardiness zones 8 to 10. It performs best in soil that is not overly fertile or moist.
- ‘Cirrus’ has white blooms and grows 12 to 18 inches tall and up to 12 inches wide.
‘Evolution Violet’ grows 18 inches tall and 14 inches wide. This cultivar has dark, violet-purple flowers.
- ‘Strata’ has deep blue flowers with attractive silvery gray bases attached to silvery stems. It has a compact growth habit and will reach a height of 18 to 24 inches and a width of 12 inches.
- ‘Victoria’ series is available with deep blue or bright white flowers. The plants are compact, reaching a height of 18- to 20-inches and a width of 12 inches.
Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha): Spectacular purple and white or solid purple, velvety flower spikes cover the plant from late summer until frost. Salvia leucantha does well in full sun and heat and tolerates some drought. It is hardy in USDA zones 7 to 11, though it is usually grown as an annual because of its speed and ease of growth. Hummingbirds and butterflies love this plant. Several cultivars, such as ‘Midnight’ and ‘Santa Barbara’, have all-purple flowers rather than the standard white and purple arrangement.
Painted Sage (Salvia viridis): Plants grow to 2 feet tall. The flowers are white, purple, or blue with brightly colored bracts. The flowering stems make a good fresh or dried cut flower.
- ‘Claryssa’ hybrids are pink, white, or purple and have broad bracts. They grow to 18 inches tall.
- ‘Pink Sundae’ has rose-pink flowers and grows to 28 inches tall.
Scarlet or Texas Sage (Salvia coccinea): Scarlet sage has bright red flowers arranged in whorls on 10-inch spikes. Cold hardy in USDA hardiness zone 9, it may overwinter near the coast. Scarlet Sage will often reseed itself. Cut flowering stems back in midsummer to encourage bushier growth and more blooms in the fall. Place plants 10 to 12 inches apart in full sun to partial shade.
- ‘Summer Jewel’ is a series available in red, pink, lavender, and white and grows 14 to 19 inches tall.
- ‘Coral Nymph’ is a salmon and white bicolor on compact plants at 2 feet tall.
- ‘Snow Nymph’ is white and grows 24 inches tall with contrasting dark green leaves.
The following salvias are usually grown as perennials. Most are hardy and will grow well throughout South Carolina.
Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii): These shrubby sages are popular for their brilliant colors and drought tolerance. They bloom throughout the summer and heavily in autumn. They need excellent drainage and full sun. Many cultivars and hybrids are available in a wide range of colors and habits; however, most cultivars will reach 2 to 3 feet tall. Autumn sage is hardy through most of the state, but some cultivars will not be hardy in the upper Piedmont and mountains.
- ‘Alba’ has white blooms.
- ‘Cherry Chief’ begins flowering in late spring with bright red flowers and continues through summer and into the fall.
‘Raspberry Royale’ makes a large 4- to 5-foot wide, dense bush, topped with raspberry-colored flowers.
- ‘Mirage™’ is a series of patented cultivars that comes in more than a dozen intense colors and reaches 12 to 14 inches tall. It is very heat tolerant and blooms well into the fall.
- ‘Radio Red’ (PP#26,362) features a fade-resistant, true bright red bloom on plants reaching 18 inches tall.
- Brazilian Blue Sage (Salvia guaranitica) This giant salvia grows to 5 feet with a dependably upright habit. It is hardy throughout the state except for the mountain areas. The flowers are an extraordinary indigo-blue and bloom from early to late summer. They are extremely attractive to hummingbirds.
- ‘Black and Blue’ has blossoms that are deep blue emerging from black sepals. The plant is very vigorous and will grow to 5 to 6 feet tall.
- ‘Argentina Skies’ has light blue blooms and licorice scented leaves. It reaches 4 to 5 feet tall.
Bog Sage (Salvia uliginosa): Bog sage is an open, upright plant with clear sky-blue flowers along graceful arching stems. It blooms throughout the summer. Unlike most salvias, it thrives in damp to boggy soil, although it will grow well in ordinary garden soil. It is ideal for the back of a flower border, where shrubs or sturdy-stemmed perennials can support its rather lax habit. The thin stems grow 4 to 5 feet tall.
Common Sage (Salvia officinalis): Common sage is the culinary seasoning used to flavor Thanksgiving stuffing. A gorgeous garden plant, common sage is a small evergreen shrub with gray-green leaves and bluish-purple flowers in spring. It thrives in hot, dry areas. Several cultivars have different leaf color or form.
- ‘Icterina’ has striking yellow and green variegated leaves. It grows to 12 inches high and 20 inches wide. This cultivar is often short-lived.
- ‘Berggarten’ has very wide, silvery-gray leaves and is tolerant of heat and humidity. This cultivar is dependable and long-lived. It is lower and wider than regular common sage growing to 1 to 2 feet high.
- ‘Tricolor’ has purple, gray-green, and pale pink variegated foliage. It grows to 18 inches high and 20 inches wide.
- ‘Purpurascens’ has narrow, smoky purple leaves. It grows to 12 inches high and 20 inches wide.
Forsythia Sage (Salvia madrensis): This is a very large, robust sage that grows 5 to 7 feet tall with large, heart-shaped bright green leaves and yellow flowers from early fall until frost. It grows best in moist, well-drained soil in sun or light shade.
Graham’s Sage (Salvia microphylla): Graham’s sage or baby sage is an evergreen shrub with pleasantly scented leaves and a mounded habit. Plants reach 3 to 4 feet wide and high, are very heat tolerant, and prefer full sun. This salvia is native to regions with rocky soils and would be suitable for a rock garden.
- ‘Hot Lips’ has vibrant red and white bicolored blooms.
- ‘San Carlos Festival’ is a prolific bloomer and has a slightly more compact habit than the species at 2 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Its blooms are a brilliant magenta.
Lilac Sage (Salvia verticillata): ‘Purple Rain’ grows 2 feet tall with bold foliage and flowering stems smothered in rich lavender blooms all summer.
Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus): This culinary herb was reclassified as a Salvia species in 2017. The fragrant evergreen plants can reach up to 4 feet tall, producing small blooms in pale blue shades. Prostrate and compact selections are also available.
Woodland Sage (Salvia sylvestris L.): Woodland sage is commonly sold in the nursery trade as Salvia nemorosa but is correctly classified as Salvia sylvestris. This perennial sage is excellent for colder mountain and upper Piedmont areas when a hardy salvia is needed. Most grow 12 to 24 inches tall and bloom over a longer period, beginning in late spring to early summer. Cut back old bloom stalks promptly and plants will rebloom through fall. These are good salvias for the front of the border.
- ‘Caradonna’ has deep purple stems that accent the bright blue flowers. The plants reach up to 30 inches in height.
- ‘East Friesland’ has deep purple flowers on a compact, 18-inch-tall plant.
- ‘Snow Hill’ is a pure white flowered selection.
- ‘Blue Hill’ has true blue blossoms.
- ‘Blue Queen’ has deep violet flowers, is 18 inches tall, and is heat-and drought-tolerant.
- ‘Rose Queen’ has rose-pink flowers.
- ‘May Night’ was the 1997 Perennial Plant of the Year by the Perennial Plant Association and has dark violet-blue flower spikes on a compact plant.
An interspecific hybrid results when two different species of Salvia combine genetic material. The resulting offspring can have unique traits and desirable garden performance. These crosses often happen naturally within the Salvia genus amongst closely related species. The perennial hybrids listed below are cold hardy throughout South Carolina.
- Anthony Parker Hybrid Sage (Salvia leucantha x elegans ‘Anthony Parker’) has dark purple blooms on plants that reach 4 to 5 feet in height and width. It flowers from midsummer through fall. This hybrid was discovered by Frances Parker in her Beaufort, South Carolina garden and named after her grandson.
- Armistad Hybrid Sage (Salvia ‘Armistad’ PP23578) has 2-inch long, royal purple flowers that are nearly black at the base. It reaches approximately 4 feet in height and width. Its exact parentage is unknown, but it is thought to be a hybrid of Salvia guaranitica and Salvia gesnerifolia.
- Indigo Spires Hybrid Sage (Salvia farinacea x longispicata ‘Indigo Spires’) has dark blue- purple flowers on unusual long arching stalks throughout summer and until frost. It grows 4½ feet tall and nearly as wide.
- Merleau® Blue Hybrid Sage (Salvia x superba ‘Merleau® Blue’) tolerates heat and drought and produces copious spikes of purple-blue blooms on plants that reach about 16 inches tall.
- Purple Majesty Hybrid Sage (Salvia guaranitica x gesneraeflor ‘Purple Majesty’) is similar to Salvia guaranitica but has purple flowers and is a larger and more robust plant, growing at least 5 to 6 feet tall. It grows well in partial shade.