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How to Grow Herbaceous Salvias for Your Most Colourful Garden Ever

Versatile, elegant, and oh so colourful, planting salvia’s throughout your healthy garden is so pleasing to the eye

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By House & Garden | May 8, 2024 | Gardens

Versatile, elegant and very much in vogue, the so-called New World salvias from Mexico, Central and South America are excellent plants for the latter part of the year. In South Africa, we grow many of the European species, such as S. nemorosa, which flower in late spring and early summer, as well as the common herbal sage, S. officinalis, and others – both annual and perennial. The species from the Americas, however, are slightly different. Generally, they are more tender than the European plants (but some are from high altitudes and therefore tougher), flowering from early summer right into the autumn in a much wider colour spectrum – from crimson red and carmine pink to true, vivid blue.

Even though growing salvias is easy, these purple flowers need the right conditions to thrive in your garden. Image via Pexels.

‘They are so fashionable at the moment and they are such good plants,’ says Vicki Weston, who grows a large collection of salvias at her nursery in Wales. ‘They’re very low maintenance, drought tolerant, long flowering and all good for bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects.’

Vicki fell in love with salvias when she opened a herb nursery on her husband’s family farm on the Isle of Wight 20 years ago. She had trained and worked as a professional cellist, but a spinal-cord tumour diagnosed just after the birth of her third child cut her musical career short: ‘I was suddenly in a wheelchair, but I knew I would go mad if I couldn’t be outside, so I started gardening – at first on my knees – just going at my own speed.’ By this time, she was a single parent and had moved to Yorkshire, where she started to sell plants from her garden on Ebay. ‘I’m extremely determined, or obstinate – I’m not sure which – I just kept going, and the plants kept going.’Seven years ago, Vicki moved to Ceredigion in West Wales, along with her beloved collection of 6,000 plants. Her interest in salvias has snowballed and she now has about 75 species and cultivars, which she sells by mail order from her website.

Salvia’s grow in many different colours like yellows, pinks and apricots as well as purples, blues and reds. Image via Pexels.

Which variety of salvia to grow in South Africa

Some of the cultivars Vicki recommends, such as the deep purple ‘Amistad’, are new to cultivation but already well known. ‘Someone found ‘Amistad’ at a plant fair in Argentina and it’s now one of the most widely seen salvias in the world,’ she says. ‘Hot Lips’ is also popular, with small, aromatic leaves and delicate, bi-coloured crimson-and-white blooms from June until the first frosts. The tender species flower the latest and some can even be in bloom at Christmas if grown in pots. Vicki recommends varieties such as S. fulgens, the Mexican scarlet sage or the striking rust-red S. confertiflora for Christmas colour. S. involucrata ‘Mulberry Jam’, with its showy deep pink flowers (or indeed any of the New World salvias), can also be container-grown to maximise autumn flowering time.

‘The colours are so diverse, with yellows, pinks and apricots as well as purples, blues and reds,’ Vicki says. Of the blues, she recommends S. patens and its cultivar ‘Cambridge Blue’, which have huge, intense-hued blooms. She also mentions the late-flowering S. corrugata from Peru, Colombia and Ecuador, and the brilliant S. sagittata with huge, arrow-shaped leaves and electric-blue flowers, which grows at 10,000 feet in the Andes. S. uliginosa is an elegant plant for the back of a border, reaching 1.2 metres, with wavy stems and hundreds of china-blue blooms, while S. ‘African Sky’ is a bushy, sturdy plant with tall spires of pretty blue-and-white flowers. Other colours are also widely represented at Vicki’s regular exhibits at local plant fairs, which include cultivars derived from both S. x jamensis and S. microphylla – from the rich crimson ‘Royal Bumble’ and fragrant velvety purple ‘Nachtvlinder’ to peachy pink ‘California Sunset’ and creamy white ‘La Mancha’.

S. ‘African Sky’ is a bushy, sturdy salvia plant with tall spires of pretty blue-and-white flowers. Image via Pexels.

How to grow salvias

Growing salvias is easy, but they need the right conditions to thrive. ‘They’re often hardier than people think – the RHS hardiness zones tend to be pessimistic,’ says Vicki. ‘I grew a lot of salvias in East Yorkshire and you would be surprised at what survived there.’ Often, soil and micro-climate can be as critical as geography. Without exception, they need a well-drained soil and a sunny spot. The soil is the most important element, so if you have a heavy soil, dig in plenty of grit before planting. ‘They don’t need much care while they are growing, but deadhead often to keep them flowering for as long as possible – and after they have flowered, don’t hurry to cut them back, Vicki advises. ‘They’re like penstemons and shouldn’t be cut back until spring, when they start shooting from the base.’

Salvia’s are low maintenance, drought tolerant, long flowering and all good for bees, butterflies and other beneficial insects. Image via Pexels.

The other plus point with the New World salvias is that it is easy to take cuttings from them, which is a wise thing to do with the more tender varieties that you are afraid of losing over the winter. ‘Making softwood cuttings can be done any time through the summer,’ Vicki says. ‘Cut any new, non-flowering shoot and plant into a 50:50 mix of multipurpose compost and perlite, and they should root easily’.

This story originally appeared on House & Garden UK.