All Hail to Salvias

Salvia greggii ‘Lipstick’. Photo by Kit Flynn.


By Kit Flynn

A good friend recently grumbled to me that for a garden column, it indeed contained a lot of talk about Teslas, washlets, musical censorship, and the aches and pains of growing old. “How about yakking about the garden?” she asked. On that warning, I’m ready to embark upon a subject near and dear to everyone’s heart: salvias.

My mind has turned to salvias simply because my Salvia microphylla ‘San Carlos Festival’ is in full array. Salvias are genuinely one of the workhorses of the garden – and, of great importance, deer tend to leave them alone. This huge genus contains over 1000 species, so it’s important to sift through some facts.

I came around to salvias fairly late in my gardening career. I well remember when Lauri Lawson of Niche Gardens mentioned that she had become enamored with salvias. I looked at her in some disbelief as my fixation then was on big-leafed, bold plants that made a statement – and that certainly did not fit my image of salvias.

Here’s the thing about salvias: They tend to sneak up on you. Pre-fence, I gradually drew closer to the idea of having salvias in my garden precisely because deer preferred other plants. Gradually, salvias found a welcome spot in the garden.

Not all salvias are hardy in our Zone 7a so if you are ordering from a catalog, be sure to note the zone requirements of particular salvias. The good news is that there is a vast variety of colors available, ranging from reds to oranges to purples and pinks down to white – there are even salvias that produce blue flowers. There truly is a salvia for everyone.

My favorites have woody stems, forming an unruly shrub shape. I personally like unruly shapes versus round little tight balls. If a rowdy shape turns you off, you might want to stay away but I issue this garden commandment: The purpose of a good garden is to cause the eye to stop, rather than sweep over a panorama. Having some irregularly shaped plants help to halt that observant eye.

I started out first with the adorable Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’ as it made me laugh with each flower divided between a white top and a red bottom. After two years, ‘Hot Lips’ failed to return due to a very cold winter. Attributing this failure to its being a native of Mexico, I gave up on it, turning to ‘San Carlos Festival’ and S. greggii ‘Lipstick’ instead.

Now the good news is that out of 1000 species in this genus, you’ll probably end up looking at just three: S. microphylla, S. greggii, and S. guaranitica. All have cultivars that are hardy in Zone 7a but please note that some are better suited to Zone 8 so be sure to check the zone requirement.

S. microphylla and S. greggii are woody plants that in a few years’ time will become shrubs. They typically bloom for a long time although they will slow down during July and August. I find that they are fabulous in October where competing blooms are fewer in number – in the spring, it’s the gaudier plants that receive the notice. S. microphylla tends to be larger than S. greggii, an important fact to keep in mind if yours is a small garden.

S. guaranitica is different in that it dies back to the ground. As Tony Avent states in his excellent article on salvias, do not prune this group of deciduous salvias until the growing season starts up as the prematurely cut stems can absorb water throughout the winter rains, thereby drowning the plant.

Cooks have used S. officinalis, the sage we use in the kitchen, for a long time. The Greeks and Romans used compresses, made from the leaves, to treat wounds. Pliny the Elder seems to be the first to use its Latin name, Salvia, that is derived from the Latin verb salvere, meaning “to heal.” For cooking purposes, it first appeared (that we know of) in a 16th century recipe book.

Here in North Carolina, gardeners use many of the salvias native to Texas and Mexico, S. greggii and S. microphylla. In Mexico, the latter can reach a height of ten feet whereas here they are low shrubs due to our winters. ‘Hot Lips’ is one of the most popular cultivars of S. microphylla whereas ‘Lipstick’, ‘Dark Dancer’, ‘Pink Preference’ and ‘Teresa’ are popular cultivars of S. greggii.

Generally, salvias require decent soil with good drainage in a sunny location. Propagation is relatively easy through seed, division or cuttings. Take the cuttings no later than the middle of the summer when tender shoots are still available. As for division on the deciduous salvias, it’s best to do that in the early spring. Because the seeds require light to sprout, do not cover them deeply in the soil.

So, in January when your gardening consists of reading catalogs, be sure to notice the salvia offerings. Choose wisely and carefully – and you might have a new best friend for the life of the garden.

After being an active member of the Durham County Extension Master Gardeners for 13 years, Kit Flynn now holds emeritus status. For five years she was the gardening correspondent for “Senior Correspondent” and shared “The Absentee Gardener” column with fellow Master Gardener Lise Jenkins. She has given numerous presentations on various gardening topics to Triangle organizations and can be reached at
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