Until relatively recently, salvias took their place amongst the plethora of bedding plants that would brighten our borders, planted as soldiers in rows often beside silvery cineraria. But more recently we've been seduced by the creativity of the salvia breeders and the understanding that this plant, commonly used just for bedding, comes from a much bigger family, numbering over 900 species.
en years ago, I began to become aware of their striking beauty -and the possibilities they created for wonderful contrasting floral combinations - when designers at the Chelsea Flower Show embraced the species. I saw Salvia 'Mainacht' (above) used lavishly in show gardens and I got sucked into their indigo mystique, so I wanted to find out more about them.
Salvia officinalis (below) is the garden sage, used for centuries for medicinal and culinary purposes. The purple-leaved variety is an attractive addition to the herb garden.
Ornamental sages vary in terms of size, foliage, hardiness and flower colours. What they have in common is a very long flowering season and, as we enter summer, they will be one of the star performers in the garden. Later on in the season, their zingy colours will mingle perfectly with other sizzling late-summer flowers such as penstemons, crocosmias, red hot pokers and dahlias. They are also good performers in drought, which will increase their popularity as water shortages extend in summer.
Some like 'Mainacht' and 'Caradonna' are winter hardy while others are tender and may be best grown in a pot where you can easily move them indoors to a conservatory for winter. Coastal, protected or southern areas will be able to grow many more. What they don't like is excessive cold or waterlogging, so plant them in your sunniest areas and add horticultural grit to heavier soils. To prolong flowering, remove flower spikes when faded but delay cutting back the plant completely until spring. Salvias can be propagated by seed but the results are variable so if you want your favourite cultivar to come true, you need to take cuttings - and you can do this right now.
Select from a healthy-looking non-flowering stem and remove the lower leaves, which will reduce water loss while the cuttings attempt to root. Make your cutting just below a leaf node, where growth hormones are most concentrated, and pot in a cuttings compost mixed with horticultural grit.
Water in using a fine rose and leave to root in a warm environment, and in about three weeks they should be rooting for you. They look amazing when planted in groups of three or five in terracotta pots. But my favourite combination will always be a border packed with Salvia 'Mainacht' combined with a haze of Geum 'Totally Tangerine'!
My favourite salvias are:
'Amistad' Large intensely purple flowers on black stems - dramatic!
'Love and wishes' Bold, red-purple flowers.
'Nachtvlinder' Velvety, small, purple flowers.
'Hot Lips' This ever-popular variety is a bicolour of white and red.
'Amethyst Lips' A newer cultivar which is purple and white.
Salvia discolor These flowers appear almost black, contrasting beautifully with the white sepals. Tender.
Salvia patens One of the clearest blue flowers you'll ever see. It's half-hardy so will need lifting in autumn.
'Dyson's Joy' Delicate flowers in dark and light pink.
Garden sage (Salvia officinalis) is a member of the mint family. Its furry leaves are aromatic and the purple flowers a big draw for bees and butterflies.