Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
Hendry County Horticulture News
Salvias Can Provide Year-Round Color
Salvias can be used to provide bountiful color to the garden nearly year round. They are a great choice for gardeners who want pretty, bright, long-lasting flowers to enjoy in the garden and in arrangements. The three that are easiest to grow and that are most readily available as bedding plants at garden centers and nurseries are scarlet sage (Salvia splendens), the blue mealy cup sage (S. farinacea), and the native tropical sage (S. coccinea). With colors that range from red, scarlet, salmon, purple, and lilac to deep and light blue, white, and bicolors, salvias offer an amazing number of landscape design possibilities.
The genus Salvia contains at least 900 species and, because they readily cross pollinate, there are innumerable hybrids. Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, wrote about their healing qualities back in the first century. The results of plant exploration in the 18th and 19th centuries brought dozens of new salvias to English and European gardeners from Mexico, China, and Africa. Salvia coccinea, indigenous to the south east US, Mexico and South America, was grown for decades as a wildflower. Both scarlet sage and mealy cup sage were discovered in the early 1800's, the former in Brazil, the latter in Texas. Salvias are members of the mint family, Labiatae, and they're easily recognized from their square stems and opposite pairs of leaves, which are usually rather velvety or hairy. One of the more familiar salvias is the perennial common garden sage (Salvia officinalis) and its colorful, fragrant variations. Both S. splendens and S. coccinea are often known as scarlet sage, which could cause confusion, but the plants' habits are quite dissimilar. S. splendens has a rather neat and compact growth habit; S. coccinea has retained some of its "wild" heritage, perhaps a little more unkempt-looking.
Salvias are easy to incorporate into a garden. Use the shorter, dwarf salvias to edge a perennial or annual garden. Place tall salvias in front of evergreen shrubs; mass them for visual impact; spot them around an herb garden to complement the mostly green garden. The taller salvias are the best for cut flowers, so you may want to put a separate bed of them in a cutting garden or plant a row in the vegetable garden. One of the most delightful aspects of salvias, especially S. coccinea, is that they attract butterflies. Combine red and blue cultivars with other annuals and perennials for the start of a butterfly garden.
Salvias grow well in full sun but most also do nicely in partial shade. During the hot summer months, plant salvias where they will have some protection from midday sun. High light can burn the flower spikes of white, coral, and salmon cultivars of S. splendens, changing them from white to brown; darker colors are more resistant to sun burn.
Salvias need soil that drains well, whether they're planted in the ground or in containers. In soil that's too wet or too dry, the plants will just sit, producing no new growth or flowers. In water-logged soil, the roots may rot. When you have selected a site, amend the soil by digging in some compost or peat moss before planting. Some salvias, particularly Salvia splendens, are sensitive to alkaline soil. Salvia farinacea and S. coccinea are more tolerant of it. If your soil is alkaline, you can avoid the entire problem by growing your salvias in raised beds or containers, and amending the soil with sulfur and organic matter or a commercial mix.
If you don't want to grow your plants from seeds, you'll find plenty of salvias at your local garden center because they're so popular as bedding plants. When you buy plants, look for healthy, green leaves with no discolored spots above or underneath. Try to select plants with fairly compact growth and good branching. Pass up plants that are tall and leggy and any plants that have obvious pests on stems, leaves or buds.
The best time to transplant any plant is on a cloudy day or in late afternoon so that the plants have a chance to get settled in before they have to contend with the drying effects of the sun. Set salvias in the ground at the same depth or slightly below the level they were growing in the pots. When transplanting, try to keep as much soil around the roots as possible so they don't dry out. Space S. splendens and S. farinacea about 10 to 12 inches apart. Space S. coccinea 8 to 12 inches apart. The closer spacing will give you an impressive planting more quickly.
Salvias are relatively care-free, but they do need some attention. Water regularly, if it doesn't rain. Even though S. splendens and S. farinacea need a well draining soil, lack of moisture is as detrimental as soggy soil. Fertilize plantings in the garden once a month with a balanced granular or water-soluble fertilizer or use a slow release fertilizer when you plant. Because salvias will continue to bloom for a long time , remember to keep feeding them. In addition to looking beautiful in the garden, salvias make great cut flowers.
Most gardeners find salvias to be relatively pest- and disease free. The diseases and pests that can plague salvias are usually problems in the greenhouse for growers, not in the home garden. However, you might want to keep an eye out for white fly, spider mites, and aphids, all of which may cause problems. Spent flower spikes can encourage botrytis, especially in cold, wet weather.
Gene McAvoy is the horticulture agent with the Hendry County Extension Service. Direct your horticulture questions to PO Box 68, LaBelle, FL 33975, e-mail - firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 863-674-4092 or 863-983-1598. You are also welcome to visit the Hendry County Extension Office at 225 Pratt Blvd., LaBelle. Office hours are from 8:00 - 5:00.
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