With just over 1000 varieties, Salvia is a huge genus in the mint family, and comes in a dizzying variety of colors, sizes, and hardiness. Annual, perennial, biennial, or shrubs, most of the varieties have stunning and colorful flowers and fragrant foliage. Tolerating a wide variety of soils and conditions, Salvias need minimal water to thrive. A garden designer for 25 years, I rely on this family again and again for my perennial border designs.
For big impact and problem solvers for tricky situations, including a heavy deer presence, I nearly always select one of the members of the perennial Salvia family, commonly known as Meadow Sage. When other plants start to fade, count on versatile Salvias to give you vibrant long-lasting color in a rich palette of pinks, purples, whites, and blues. Reliable rebloomers, you can count on extending your salvia bloom from spring until the end of summer with careful selections. There is a plethora of tender salvias that will further extend your color show until the first frost hits as well.
The Skyscraper Salvias that come in a wild range of colors are another outstanding tender Salvia which I love, but I use these purely for containers. I found when I planted them in a border, they sulked and didn’t perform well.
But as a garden designer that specializes in creating colorful herbaceous borders in the mid-Atlantic region, I use the reliably hardy salvias extensively in my designs and have found some that are more useful than others.
Salvia sylvestris May Night, a 1997 Perennial Plant of the Year, is an intense indigo-purple blooming performer that does well in the clay soil that we are ‘blessed’ with in the mid-Atlantic. But I nearly always pick one of the newer varieties for their more compact size and wider range of colors. Salvia nemorosa Rose Marvel and Blue Marvel are truly little marvels in the landscape. Just twelve inches high, these floriferous plants have repeat blooms all summer long if you keep them dead headed with a quick slash of your trimmers. If you prefer to leave it alone, the stalky seed heads add interest and food for a wide range of birds, including finches. The large flowered magenta pink spikes of Rose Marvel can be seen from far away and like all salvias is a pollinator favorite, attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. I have watched hummers zip in and out of salvia flowers very methodically in search of nectar. Workhorses of the front of the border, grouping them together in drifts of three to six gives you a bigger impact. Readily available in nurseries, this is a no-brainer for deer-browsed sunny areas.
Eveline Salvia and Purple Rain
Salvia Eveline is a showy pastel pink salvia that you rarely see in gardens, but one of my favorites and selected by Piet Oudolf for its superior color and extra-long spikes of flowers. When it blooms, you just see flowers, no foliage, and it brings a soft pink to the border that blends well with most any other color. Very tough, it tends to wander around, but is easy to remove. A front-of-the-border plant, the foliage like most other salvias, is a basal rosette of fragrance and the flowers are perfect for bouquets.
Salvia verticillata Purple Rain, another pollinator magnet, entices with its densely packed velvety purple blooms that can get 24” tall on upright reddish stems. The foliage is especially attractive with wavy, heart shaped leaves. I saw this cultivar in Scotland for the first time and have used it in many gardens since for an eye-catching selection.
For the earliest blooming Salvia, I pull Sallyrosa April Night out of my quiver to extend the blooming season from mid-spring into summer. Electric violet-blue flowers appear a month earlier than the award-winning May Night and its petite size gets it a prime spot at the front of the border.
If you prefer a native salvia, there are several semi-native Salvias that fit the bill and extend the color palette. Salvia greggii Heatwave Red or Autumn Sage is hardy to our zone and will bloom from May until frost.
This is a totally different animal from the other salvias mentioned and is native to Texas, so enjoys hot and dry conditions. More shrub-like than the other salvias, it can grow up to two feet tall and is a blaze of color in the mid part of a border. There is a new Mirage series of Autumn Sages – Mirage Cherry Red, Cream, Salmon, Deep Purple, and Soft Pink – that I want to try out. I cut my Arctic Blaze back by 1/3 in August to get another fiery flush of blooms to last the rest of the season.
My final last pick for a favorite sage is Salvia azurea ‘Nekan’, or Pitcher Sage, native to the southern US. Visiting the Delaware Botanic Gardens, I was struck by this Piet Oudolf meadow selection with spectacular sky-blue flowers and linear foliage. Extremely drought tolerant (the roots can extend 6-8 feet underground), this is one tough plant. Hardy to our area and with an open stature, I sought it out and now have several of them spotted through my garden. It needs some space, so I planted them towards the back of my borders, as it can grow four feet high. Not aggressive, I plan on adding some more specimens and find that it does well in partial shade and think it should be more widely used.
Excellent sources of food for all kinds of wildlife, especially for our Ruby Throated hummingbird, Salvia is a plant that keeps on giving throughout the growing season. Leaving the final spent stems for the birds, the stalks are easy to clean up in the spring for another round of blooming. Easy to pair with other blooming plants, especially Nepetas, make them a pleasure to design with.