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A Salvia By Any Other Name

If I mention Salvia then you probably think immediately of the scarlet red Salvia splendens which is grown widely as a bedding plant creating a vibrant bright display. It will evoke strong feelings I suspect, due to its strong, bright colour.

Used throughout the UK and Ireland in public and private bedding schemes it is one of the brightest of all reds in the garden. So taken was I with this plant as a young boy that I remember even now, purchasing a packet of seed in what was the Elm Tree garden centre in Glounthaune, now unfortunately gone. I sowed the seed in the green house at home and watched as it germinated, pricked out the little seedlings when they were the right size and nurtured them, hardened them off when the temperatures started to rise and eventually planted them out in the garden. Imagine then my surprise when my lovely bright red flowers opened up not red at all but the bluest of blue.

Quite different in every way to the bedding plant. I later discovered I had in fact grown Salvia patens, Mr Fothergill had got it wrong. Then I started to learn that the annual bedding plant is just one of nearly 1000 species of Salvia.

Commonly referred to as sages, Salvias can be shrubs, herbaceous or evergreen perennials, annuals or biennials. The pant that we call sage is in itself quite an ornamental evergreen subshrub. It produces attractive blue flowers during the summer and the leaves are strongly scented of, sage, funnily enough. ‘Purpurascens’ is a purple leaved form of sage with the same blue flowers and ‘Icterina’ has a lovely cream coloured variegation on the leaf margins.

Health and well-being surround this genus with the name stemming from the Latin verb salvare’ meaning to feel well and the noun salus meaning health or salvation. It is thus no surprise to learn that traditionally sage was used to treat many ailments including gastro intestinal problems, oral and also respiratory problems. Sage certainly has very strong antiseptic, anti-fungal, antioxidant and anti-bacterial properties meaning that a cup of sage tea could be doing you more good than you may ever realise and gargling with cold sage tea is said to be very good for a sore throat.

Perhaps most interestingly at the moment is the trials that are ongoing examining the effect of sage on memory loss and as a possible weapon against Alzheimers Disease.

Plants come in and out of vogue with me. I can become obsessed with a particular genus and try many species and varieties in the garden collecting many of the more obscure varieties as I go and then, as happens in life my tastes will change and my fixation will move on to different plants. Salvias are something that I have been developing a relationship with over the last ten years or so discovering first, Salvia microphylla a subshrub with lovely blackcurrant scented foliage and red flowers which are produced freely from late summer, June-July right through to September-October.

Hardy to most winters, many wouldn’t have survived 2010. ‘Hot Lips’ is a unique, bicolored form with flowers half white and half bright red. It’s a great variety for colour and pizazz in the garden, again flowering from summer right through to late autumn and even winter with the flowers only fading with the first harsh frost. It’s a must for the garden as it forms an airy mass of about 1.2 metres in height with a similar spread. Give it a position in full sun and a very well-drained soil. Keep dead heading and trimming during the summer to keep it bushy and flowering, clean it up a bit in the autumn but hold off on its main haircut until mid March, just a s the new growth is starting once more.

S. patens was a revelation to me all those years ago that Salvias can indeed be blue and what a blue it is. Also referred to as Gentian Sage it’s an herbaceous plant forming a good sized clump. Again give it full sun and good drainage and even with all that I have found it to be a relatively short lived perennial, giving me about four or five years before it disappears so take action and collect the seed or propagate from semi ripe cuttings in August-September to ensure a continuing presence in the garden. Since then I have acquired several varieties and I am now on the brink of becoming obsessed.

As you would expect from a genus of a thousand species Salvias offer such a variety in flower colour, leaf colurs, shape and form. They all seem to be loved by the beneficial wildlife, being alive with bees and butterflies during flowering time.

I have never been a fan of hallucinogenics, preferring to keep my mind in a more stable state, it’s addled enough as it is and so Salvia divinorum is not one that I will be seeking. A psychoactive plant which is said to bring on visions and hallucinations its probably for the best that this is a form found in isolated forests in Mexico.

Much safer to look at some of the varieties which are stunning for their aesthetic attributes as opposed to their narcotic properties. ‘Carradonna’ is a tall growing form of Salvia nemerosa, the woodland sage and produces spires of dark navy flowers from late summer and is certainly one worth sourcing.

The flowers of Salvia verticillata ‘Endless Love’ are purple in colour and it has a much more informal habit, falling around to create a lovely hazy effect on a bright summer’s day. Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ is a particularly striking form of Hummingbird Sage or Anise-scented sage with flowers of azure blue coming out of a jet black calyx.

That seed company’s error all those years ago started a voyage that is still ongoing and each year I try and source at least one more variety, not quite an obsession, more a healthy steady enduring relationship.

Navy Blue flowers of Salvia Carradonna
The stunning navy blue flowers of Salvia Carradonna keep going right into the autumn

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