A splash of salvia for Niagara gardens
Hardy perennial a beautiful favourite among 2019 flowers
A quiet winter’s night is the perfect time to pull up a few images of last summer’s garden to consider what worked and what should be replaced.
A few clumps of perennial salvia in our front border deserve a little recognition. With little more than a good clipping after the snow melts and dose of water soluble fertilizer (when I feed the roses), violet-blue spikes of salvia appear on cue just as the pink shrub roses bloom.
The salvias flower for most of season, slowing down during the mid-summer heat and humidity, and then perking up again in September when the days are a little cooler.
I know the salvias are happy —they’ve started to spread — not enough to be a problem — just enough to add a splash of violet blue to the echinacea along the front of the border. I’d love to take credit for the combination, but it is pure serendipity. The salvias continued to offer fresh colour well into early November this year. I should add, this salvia returned for more than 10 years.
The National Garden Bureau (NGB) recognizes an annual, perennial, vegetable and bulb each year, and recognizes 2019 as the year of the salvia. Let’s take a closer look at this hardy garden plant.
The name salvia comes from the Latin salvere, meaning to heal, but this moniker refers to the common herb sage (Salvia officinalis) and not the ornamental salvias we find flowering in our gardens. All salvia are in the mint family and are cousins to landscape favourites such as catmint and bee balm.
English botanist George Bentham did the first extensive documentation of this genus in 1836. One fascinating characteristic of salvia flowers is that they contain a trigger mechanism that deposits pollen on the back side of visiting bees. This pollen is then transferred to female salvia flowers that share the same receptive flower parts, encouraging pollination among the same or similar species.
Native to the wooded elevations of Eurasia, the most common hardy species are S. nemorosa and S. pratensis and the many hybrids derived such as S. x sylvestris and S. x superbum. Today, we typically refer to the entire class of these hybrids as S. nemorosa (nemorosa from the Latin ‘of woods’). Interestingly, all plants with the common name of sage are salvia, but we reserve the true genus name for ornamental rather than culinary species. The sage you use in your kitchen is actually salvia, too, and it can also be winter hardy in Niagara; however, it is valued for its ornamental (and flavourful)
leaves rather than for its flowers.
Much of the early work in hardy salvia breeding was done by German plantsman Ernst Pagels who is credited with breeding varieties ‘Blauhugel’ (Blue Hill) and ‘Schneehugel’ (Snow Hill) shortly after the Second World War. Both of these are still in commercial cultivation and are found in garden centres during spring and summer.
Today, there are several hundred varieties of hardy garden salvia from which to choose. Likely the most common and well-known cultivar, also a product of innovative German breeding is ‘Mainacht’ (MayNight). Named perennial plant of the year by the Perennial Plant Association in 1997, May Night remains a favourite among landscapers for its abundance of indigo blue flowers and pest and disease resistance.
Other standards include the upright, dark-stemmed variety ‘Caradonna’ and the dark purple cultivar ‘Ostfriesland’ (East Friesland). These tried-and-true classics are being replaced slowly with exciting new varieties from flower breeders in the United States and Europe. Awardwinning cultivars such as ‘Blue Marvel’ and ‘Rose Marvel’ present extra-large flowers and provide a much longer flowering window.
Care and cultivation
Hardy salvia are considered to be care-free and easy to manage in the garden. They can be in place for years without a need for dividing. They are also a favourite of pollinators such as bees and hummingbirds. As a member of the mint family, their leaves are not on the preferred forage list of deer and rabbits and considered to be a great garden addition where these creatures are a nuisance.
Be sure to plant in a location where they will receive at least one half-day of direct sunlight, as this will provide an environment that encourages the highest degree of flowering. Salvia prefers soils rich in organic matter, so you may want to work in some compost at planting time. Once established in the garden, salvia is quite drought tolerant. To maintain healthy green growth, plan on fertilizing you salvia plants when they emerge from dormancy in the spring and once again in early summer. Applying a balanced fertilizer such as 15-15-15 according to label directions will do the trick.
To encourage a second flush of colour, cut the plants back aggressively to about one-third their original size after the flowers begin to fade and leaves turn brown.
Hardy garden salvia are delightful additions to Niagara gardens, they are self-sufficient, attractive to pollinators and bunnies and deer leave them alone. It’s little wonder the National Garden Bureau has declared 2019 the year of the salvia.
Theresa Forte is a local garden writer, photographer and speaker. You can reach her by calling 905-351-7540 or by email at theresa_[email protected]patico.ca.
Hardy salvia are attractive to pollinators. Salvia Spring King, Dummen Orange. Salvia Bordeau Compact Sky Blue offers rich violet-blue spikes of colour for the summer border. Hardy salvia will come back reliably year after year.
Salvia nemerosa Sallyrosa April Night with spikes violet-blue flowers above a low mound of olive green foliage. Pretty in a container on a sunny patio or deck, or plant it right in the border.