The salvia solution Lovely yet tough perennial has a place in every garden

'Hot Lips'

Gardeners always find common ground. Put two or more avid gardeners together and soon the talk will turn to the weather, which pests are plaguing our plants, and finally, our favorite flowers. Horticulture professionals are no different.

While Dr. Anthony Keinath and I (Amy Dabbs) both work for Clemson University, we have very different jobs. He spends his days in a laboratory at the Clemson University Coastal Research & Education Center, while I spend mine in the Extension office assisting home gardeners. Yet, it took us only five minutes to discover our mutual passion for perennials, and that we share a love for salvias.

Salvias are members of the mint family, making them vigorous growers but hardly ever as aggressive as culinary mint. They are heat- and drought-tolerant and have few problems with insects or diseases. Several will even tolerate wet soils.

It is important to plant salvias in the right place in the garden, as they can be short-lived when their basic needs for drainage and sun are not met. Other than that, salvias provide nectar for hummingbirds and bees, making them both beautiful and valuable plants.

Just like other Lowcountry gardens, our landscapes also have problem areas, including blazing hot afternoon sun, partially shady areas where flowers seldom bloom, herds of grazing deer, poorly drained wet areas and compacted soils. We agree there is a "salvia solution" for just about every trouble spot.

Don't get the wrong impression, salvias are more than just plant problem solvers, they offer lots of flower power and ask very little in return. We have compiled some of our favorites in our list of "Salvia Superlatives" to help guide your salvia selections.

We give the award for "Earliest Bloomer" to Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii). This name is really a misnomer, since this long-blooming salvia flowers for more than six months of the year. From April to October, these Texas natives bloom sporadically on old wood. The flowers range in color from red, pink and lavender to burgundy and purple. The foliage remains evergreen on the 2x2-foot plants through winter, so wait until spring or early summer to prune them. For best flowering, plant autumn sage in sandy soils with good drainage and full sun.

Anthony says if these plants begin to lose vigor, simply transplant them to a different area in the garden to revive them. To increase your supply, you may propagate by layering or cuttings.

This title goes to Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha). Amy says this is one gorgeous fall bloomer that looks great with ornamental grasses, and gold, orange or burgundy foliage for autumnal displays in containers and perennial borders. This lush perennial tops out at 3 to 31/2 feet in height and width, but smaller cultivars such as 'Santa Barbara' are more compact at 21/2 x 2 feet. The fuzzy purple flower spikes can be as long as 10 to 17 inches. Mexican bush sage prefers full sun for best flowering. If planted in partial shade, these salvias have fewer flowers, but will grow just fine.

Longest Bloomer

Gardeners who grow Salvia microphylla, 'Hot Lips', will agree it deserves the title "Longest Bloomer." Like the postal service, this flower delivered through wind, snow, sleet and polar vortex this year. This sassy salvia lives up to its name with red and white flowers; Amy says it makes her think it is blowing kisses in the garden. The hummingbirds really love this plant, hovering over it protectively all season. This is a good choice for perennial beds, cottage gardens and pollinator gardens.

Mealy Cup Sage (S. farinacea) may not have a romantic-sounding name, but it tops our list as "Most Versatile" due to its usefulness in beds, borders and containers. Common cultivars include compact 'Victoria Blue' and 'Evolution,' both producing blue to lilac purple flowers. Mealy cup sage is best planted in spring or fall and enjoyed through the cooler months. As temperatures rise, it will sometimes stop blooming in mid-summer and return in fall as temperatures cool. This full-sun salvia prefers rich, well-drained soil with regular moisture. It also responds positively to applications of fresh compost during the growing season. Because it prefers cooler weather, it is occasionally susceptible to powdery mildew and rust.

Bog sage (Salvia uliginosa) is an unusual member of the salvia family that defies the group preference for dry soil. This salvia, the one "Most Tolerant of Wet Feet," is perfectly suited to low areas with soil that remains moist for days after a rain. Bog sage blooms consistently from mid-May to late summer on 3- to 4-foot tall stalks, topped with brilliant azure blue flowers. It also is a hummingbird "magnet." One caution from Anthony, the plant pathologist, is that bog sage is moderately susceptible to root-knot nematode.

While we both prefer perennial salvias to annual varieties, two cultivars of Salvia coccinea, 'Coral Nymph' and 'Lady in Red,' share the award for "Best Annual" salvias. This species is often called hummingbird sage because they are favorites of the tiny migratory birds so loved by gardeners. 'Coral Nymph' won Amy's heart with its beautiful coral and white flowers, and 'Lady In Red' is beloved for its glorious showers of red blooms all season. Both are annuals that reseed true to type, and deserve a place in the garden, in our opinion. Both reach 2 feet tall and flower on delicate plants. Amy says these salvias bloom their hearts out all summer in her part-shade, woodland garden, making her a big fan.

While S. coccinea blooms in part shade, we had to give perennial Anise or Brazilian sage (S. guaranitica) the superlative for "Best Salvia for Shade." Plant the popular cultivar 'Black and Blue' in a part-sun location and fertilize monthly for beautiful, true blue flowers that draw hummingbirds to the garden. Because this salvia tends to spread and make itself comfortable in the garden, it is easy to divide and share or replant in other areas of the garden. This perennial salvia is very reliable due to its large fleshy root system, which gives it a kick-start each spring.

Forsythia Sage (S. madrensis) is without a doubt the tallest of all the salvias grown in the Lowcountry, hence the title "Scene Stealer." The plants can reach 7 feet tall, and that's before they bloom. Anthony thinks the large, heart-shaped leaves with red petioles make the plant attractive even before the butter to lemon-yellow flowers appear late in October. Unfortunately, this is one of the most frost sensitive salvias. It is a good "pass-along" plant; we got our plants from Amanda McNulty, fellow Extension agent and host of SCETV's "Making It Grow."

Just when we thought we had tried them all, Amy recently purchased and planted a new hybrid of unknown origin called 'Wendy's Wish.' Since she hasn't grown it for a full season, she can't say how it will perform as a perennial, but with hot pink flowers and burgundy-hued foliage, it's likely to win her "Favorite New Salvia" award for 2014.

The Clemson University Cooperative Extension Service Master Gardener program will offer its next volunteer training course beginning Sept. 18. Applications for the course are now being accepted online at All interested candidates must apply by the deadline, Aug. 8.

Due to extenuating circumstances involving road closures near the Clemson Extension office in Moncks Corner, the office will be open 8 a.m. to noon Monday through Friday and afternoons by appointment only. Call 719-4140. Soil samples also may be dropped off at the following locations:

Charleston County Office, 259 Meeting St. Charleston, 722-5940.

Dorchester County Office, 201 Johnston St., St. George, 832-0135.

Summerville Master Gardener Office, 1105 Yancey St., Summerville 285-2180 (9 a.m.-noon).

Summerville Farmer's Market, Main Street, 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Saturdays April-October.