The genus Salvia, a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), is one of the largest and most versatile groups of plants suited to Sonoma County gardens. The challenge in selecting species or cultivars is to choose those most at home in our summer-dry, winter-wet climate.
Salvias may be evergreen or deciduous shrubs, perennials, biennials, or annuals. All have tubular flowers, opposite leaves, and square stems that often become round with age. The genus offers a wide range of forms, textured foliage, and vibrantly colored blossoms that combine well with most other plants in the landscape. Most species attract humming birds, butterflies and bees, but not deer and rabbits; are drought tolerant once established, and may suffer from excessive summer irrigation. The following are popular low-water species, many with cultivars that offer variations in size and flower color.
Salvia argentea—silver sage. A dramatic rosette low to the ground makes a handsome focal point with 6-10 in. fuzzy leaves. White hooded flowers appear in summer along 3-ft. tall stems. Silver sage requires excellent drainage, is short-lived, and may need to be replaced every 2 years. Offsets may appear at the base or seedlings nearby if flowers are not deadheaded.
Salvia chamaedryoides—germander or blue sage. Fast-growing and drought-tolerant, blue sage quickly spreads in loose colonies 1-3 ft. tall and wider. Semi-evergreen, grayish green, silvery leaves fill wiry stems that mound up loosely as they spread; shear to encourage denser growth. Small, bright blue flowers bloom spring-fall in sun or part shade.
Salvia coccinea—Texan or blood sage. Mostly deciduous in winter, this fast-growing but short-lived, 1-3 ft. tall perennial blooms in summer in orange, pink, red, white, or multi-colored blossoms; deadheading encourages rebloom. Plant in nearly any well-drained soil; cut back to 4-6 in. before spring growth resumes.
Salvia greggii & hybrids—autumn sage. Adaptable to full sun or part shade, autumn sage begins flowering in late spring. Vertical, then arching, wiry branches and narrow leaves to 1 in. fill this woody-based shrub, 1-3 ft. high and wide. Select cultivars for pink, red, violet, or white blossoms; trim back halfway or more in spring to maintain attractive shape.
Salvia leucantha—Mexican bush sage. Loved for velvety purple or purple and white blossoms in late summer-fall atop 3-6 ft. upright, slightly arching stems that rise from the ground. Cut back close to the base before new spring growth begins. Evergreen grayish, blue green leaves are lance-shaped, 6-in. long, deeply textured, and somewhat fuzzy.
Salvia microphylla. Similar to Salvia greggii in appearance, this dependable shrub bears more rounded leaves with slightly serrated margins. Choose among many cultivars for a wide range of floral color nearly year-round but heaviest in spring and fall.
Salvia muelleri—royal purple sage. Another sage similar to Salvia greggii but lower-growing and more widely spreading by rhizomes with 1-2 in. oblong leaves on 1-12 in. stems. Clusters of violet blossoms appear nearly all year, heaviest in spring-late fall. Cut to 6 in. from the ground after the last spring frost and give occasional summer water for best appearance.
Salvia officinalis—common sage. The best selection for culinary use, common sage is also an attractive 1-3 ft. tall and wide ornamental perennial with grayish green, fuzzy foliage. Lavender-blue, violet, red, pink, or white spike-like clusters decorate stem tips spring-summer. Plant in full sun or part shade; delay pruning until new leaves begin to unfurl in spring. Cut just above the new growth, nearly to the base to maintain compactness. Cutting into bare wood usually causes dieback. ‘Berggarten’ is long-lived and purple blooming; ‘Aurea’ has creamy gold variegation; ‘Tricolor’ foliage blends cream, green, and pink.
Salvia regla—mountain or red sage. Sensitive to pruning, this sage must be cut back only during summer growth. Left unpruned, it develops into an arching 4-6 ft., long-blooming shrub. Remnants of reddish orange flowers persist at branch tips for weeks into fall until frost or longer in mild-winter microclimates where it remains evergreen. Late-season flowers are a nectar source for hummingbirds.
Salvia x jamensis—jamé sage. This hybrid of mixed parentage results in somewhat unpredictable shape, usually 1-3 ft. tall, often rooting as branches spread. Occasional summer water promotes an especially wide range of floral color in full bloom summer-fall. Prune in very late winter or early spring, cutting back no more than 1/3 of each stem with healthy foliage.