THE ordinary sage used in cooking is a decorative plant in its own right. It produces good flower spikes in shades of lilac to dark blue over the grey-green leaves, but there are a few bushy relatives of the common sage that are even more decorative.
These have lasted remarkably well this year, still flowering freely in late November after flowering since mid-summer. They flower well in most years in early autumn but they seemed to get a burst of energy when the weather picked up in September.
These little shrubs are well worth seeking out and they have been widely offered for sale in recent years. There are several related species, all from the warm southern United States and northern Mexico, but the main ones are Salvia microphylla and Salvia greggii.
All kinds have two-lipped flowers, which is typical of the sage family: an upward-pointing upper lip, which is often hairy; and a broad lower lip. The shape of the flower facilitates visiting insects, the lower lip providing a landing area and the upper lip holding the functional parts of the flowers where pollen is transferred.
These plants naturally have a range of flower shades – scarlet, crimson, magenta and purple, and some have yellow flowers too. The plant breeders have bred new named varieties in an even greater range of colours, including some two-tones, such as 'Hot Lips' which has a very distinctive white upper lip and a bright red lower one.
Named varieties include 'Pink Blush', which is light magenta; 'Ribambelle', light pink; 'Cerro Potosi', bright hot pink; 'Trelissick', white with a pink flush; 'Royal Bumble', bright scarlet; 'Icing Sugar', bright purple pink fading at the edge of the bottom lip; 'Stormy Pink', very light pink with a darker flush; 'Sungold', pale yellow; 'Peach' is more orange than peach, and 'Sierra San Antonio' is creamy yellow with a red flush at the base of the petals.
As might be expected, given the provenance of the species, these are not completely hardy plants, but are often a bit tougher than might be expected. They are often cut back in winter, more so inland than in coastal areas, but usually do not get killed outright, although this can happen.
Grow these pretty little shrubs in a sunny spot in well-drained fertile soil. Frost-damaged stems can be clipped off in spring and the plant given a shake of shrub fertiliser. As an insurance against winter losses, a few cuttings can be taken in summer and kept in a greenhouse or in a bright window in winter.