Offering up some sage advice
DESPITE winter cold and even periods of drenching rain there is one traditional herb that seems to tolerate all these conditions – and even thrive on neglect.
If grown in slightly impoverished but well-limed soil, it tastes even better. The leaves are used to flavour stews, soups, casseroles and with lots of onions make magnifi cent, mouthwatering gravy. Of course, I’m talking about sage ( Salvia
officinalis) – the herb with a unique aroma, guaranteed to bring back childhood memories.
Sage has been used by the human race for thousands of years for culinary and medicinal purposes. It is an herb which has certainly been the salvation of many a meal.
I’ve been growing two varieties of sage, the common, grey- leaf form and, in the ornamental garden, a lovely purple- leaf variety with the same intense flavour and aroma.
Fortunately, these useful culinary herbs are only part of the great sage tribe. The vast majority are outstanding flowering annuals, perennials and small shrubs. These superb ornamentals have been used as a signifi cant part of well- furnished flower borders for generations.
There are all sorts of ornamental salvias, including those grown primarily for their purple or variegated leaf forms. Others are grown for flower displays, with some growing to more than 2m. Almost all salvias thrive in sweet, perfectly drained soil, and are astonishingly tolerant of long, dry periods in summer.
An exception is the highly- attractive bog sage ( S. uliginosa), a tough perennial from Brazil. It not only does well in wet places, it even thrives in both clay and well- drained soils, producing enchanting displays of small, sky- blue flowers for weeks during summer.
The ornamental sages produce flowers in a range of colours, including purple, violet, magenta or red.
Nearly all have leaves which produce a delicious, aromatic smell when crushed.
There are so many different types of sage that botanists still struggle to identify some of the 2000 species and hybrids.
This is made more diffi cult because species and hybrids freely interbreed.
All are related to the mint tribe and have typical square stems. Salvias have opposite leaves and distinctly shaped, easily recognisable flowers of various sizes.
At least half the world’s salvias come from North and South America. The rest come from Europe and Asia.
These versatile plants can be found growing happily in sub- tropical gardens, as well as in many parts of Tasmania, with most salvias loving coastal gardens while a couple are able to survive the intense cold of inland gardens.
At least one outstanding flowering sage ( Salvia hians) produces conspicuous violetblue flowers from autumn deep into late winter.
This plant thrives if heavily pruned immediately after flowering.
Most ornamental salvias are spring and summer- bloomers and can form highly attractive ground covers or tall, elegant spires festooned with rosy- pink, violet or pale purple flowers.
Mexican Bush Sage ( S. leucantha, or Midnight) produces fantastic displays of rich purple- violet flowers from March until the first heavy frosts, and longer in frost- free districts.
There are many forms of S. microphylla – and some grow up to 2m to produce outstanding splashes of cool, lilac- pink in a summer garden. Every winter we cut ours back to the ground and it revels in this treatment.
In spring, vigorous new shoots sprout forth, each producing weeks of wonderful displays.
Summer pruning as the first flush of flowers fade stimulates another display within weeks.
It is worth a trip to any well- equipped garden centre or specialist nursery to start a collection.
Among the best I’ve even seen is the display at the Royal Tasmanian Botanical Garden.
Salvias can be planted out at any time of the year but spring is really the perfect time because the plants get a flying start as daylight hours increase and temperatures rise.
And once the plants grow large enough, propagation is easy by either dividing existing plants or taking cuttings, virtually at any time of the year.