Salvia for Pollinators

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If pollinators were at the polls, Salvia would have won

If pollinators were doing the voting, the most popular flowers at Field Day were the Salvia, by far. Salvia’s appeal is broad and deep—we saw native bees, bumblebees, honeybees, hummingbirds, and other beneficial pollinators drinking from the generous fountains these plants provide. If you support the beneficials, have a pollinator line, or just work with kids and gardening, it’s important to include Salvia in the heart of your program. Several features of the blooms make this plant especially attractive.

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A large, stiff lobe on the lower petal extends out like a platform


A big help to pollinators is a broad landing pad. This is true for most sizes of insects, since it is easier to gather nectar while resting than it is to struggle for some refreshment. Most Salvia flowers have a large lobe on the lower petal that extends outward like a platform, and it is rather stiff. It can hold the weight of smaller bugs, and it definitely supports the bigger ones up to a point. The biggest ones cheat, but we’ll come back to this subject later.

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Multiple florets mean a single stem can handle many customers at once


Another great feature of Salvia is the twirl of florets around the stem. This is the nectar’s source, and each floret is like a deep-dish serving container at a buffet table. The stem can handle many customers at once, which happens, or one customer trying a little of everything, which also happens.

We find it’s the same strategy fast food restaurants employ by using tiny tables with four chairs crowded around them: pack the guests in, serve them up quickly, and move them out the door. Salvia blossoms are built to do just that.

Salvias as Pollinators 09Flowers appear small but they recharge constantly


Though the individual flowers look small they recharge quickly. The stem serves as a central pipeline to bring up sugars and treats from the kitchens inside the leaves, constantly topping off the serving dishes inside the flowers.

Salvia also blooms and reblooms frequently, at least the annual varieties. Remember, Salvia is a very large group of plants. On one end we have the perennial types, which bloom once or maybe twice a season. On the other end are the annual Salvias, which bloom non-stop from the time they are planted. Then there are the ones in the middle—the intergenerics.

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Planting assorted cultivars in the same bed amps up nectar availability

Intergeneric Salvia is a mix of the two types. It blooms bigger like the perennial Salvia but it also reblooms frequently, like the annuals. For pollinators, this means the food keeps coming back all the way to frost. Planting an assortment of cultivars in the same bed amps up availability, since all the Salvia types cycle through their color at varying frequencies.

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We’ve seen a wide range of pollinators visit our Salvia gardens


Because the Salvia genus is so diverse we get flowers tailored to one or two types of pollinators. Some have long, slender tubes with the nectar tucked at the end. Other blooms have short faces and small cups to hold the nectar, built to attract anyone within a certain weight class who might be interested in a bite to eat.

As a result, we’ve seen a wide range of pollinators visit our gardens: native bees, honeybees, bumblebees, beetles, hummingbirds, and more. Salvia is a generalist, and some of the larvae use it as a host plant—plus there are also freeloaders.

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In the male stage, stamens dust the back of the bees with pollen


Salvia charges a fee in an unusual way. High at the opening of the flower are two stamens at the end of long thread-like levels, holding the pollen. As a bee enters the flower, they flex down and dust the back of the insect. This is called the male stage.

When the bee moves on to another flower in the female stage, the stamens are already bent down, expecting the arrival of compatible pollen. By using different lever lengths, various Salvias can dust insects in different places, yet the pollens never mix.

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Customers should enter through the front doors


This strategy is flexible and works well with insect customers in a range of weight classes, from tiny natives to larger honeybees, as long as they enter the restaurant through the front doors.

Some bees, known as robber bees choose alternative routes to the nectar. They are too big to fit through the front of the flower, so they break in through the back. After settling on top of the flower, they chew a hole in the base, scooping up the food pollen-free.

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Robber bees break in through the back and collect nectar pollen-free


Although Salvia is famous for its sun performance, we discovered strong shade qualities a few years ago. We planted Vistas and Victoria around our Magnolia tree, some of the deepest shade in our Display Gardens. Lo and behold, they bloomed well—as long as they were watered.

That’s the trick. Less rain reaches those gardens because of the leaves above and the tree roots below. If the Tree Garden had reasonable access to water, the Salvias thrived. However, we learned that sticking our head out the door is not an accurate indicator of how wet the soil is below our trees—especially that Magnolia.

In gardens with partial sun we’ve had no problems with blooming at all, so feel free to use Salvia in a wider range of gardens than strictly full sun.

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Our ‘Salvia and Friends’ garden gets sun for half of the day