A New Age of Salvia

01 Garden with Bench
One of five Salvia gardens grew next to the benches along the hill

If you visited our Display Beds this year you saw a lot of Salvias—a lot of cultivars with a lot of changes. We planted over 20 different varieties across five beds, the most we have done. Now, when we say changes we aren’t talking about small variances in color or size. These are significant movements into new hybrids and better specimens all around. In our opinion, the breeders have given us a New Age of Salvia.

A couple of decades ago, these choices didn’t exist. Salvias of the world were easily divided into two camps: the perennials like ‘May Night’ and ‘Caradonna’, and the annuals like the Vista series and ‘Victoria Blue’. Anything in-between was considered odd, or odds-n-ends. Back in those days the choices were snoozy, but we can’t say that anymore.

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Beefy ‘Purple & Bloom’ provides constant color and is always buzzing with activity


A good example of the oomph we see in today’s cultivars would be Salvia ‘Purple & Bloom’ from Ball FloraPlant. Although ‘Black & Blue’ opened the door with its distinctive guaranitica-style blooms, the new ‘Purple & Bloom’ pushes that look into commercial realms. It’s a landscaper’s plant with a beefier habit, more spires, larger blooms, constant color—and it’s always stuffed with bees and hummingbirds.

This path to better quality appears in a number of formerly obscure Salvia species. Breeders focus on a unique trait, make the plant lusher, add color choices if possible, and extend the blooming season. Before, these alternate types of Salvias were interesting; now they are becoming viable.

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‘Mystic Spires’—the look of ‘Victoria Blue’ with the bulk of a bodybuilder


Another important plant that changes the Salvia game is ‘Mystic Spires’, which hit the market shortly after ‘Black & Blue’ appeared. A farinacea hybrid, it has a passing resemblance to ‘Victoria Blue’, but the longispicata parent put the bulk of a bodybuilder into it. If a Salvia could look as ripped as Schwarzenegger in his prime, it would look like ‘Mystic Spires’. This is easily the biggest Salvia we sell.

Hybrids represent a different style of breeding than straight species improvements that produced ‘Purple & Bloom’. Whereas the former strategy takes some good and makes it better, hybrids function like mash-ups. Imagine Stayin’ Alive as heavy metal—that would be hybrid breeding. Salvia has so many species, with so many traits, that the genus functions more like a Lego kit with a huge range of swappable parts.  

04 Skyscraper
This pink Skyscraper has a lot going on under the hood


Consider the Skyscraper series from Selecta. They took the distinctive ‘Black & Blue’ hooded look in a different direction by updating the limited flower colors with with shades of red, orange, and pink normally found in the annuals. They also added other necessary ingredients for commercial viability: denser blooms, more spires, stronger plants, and a longer blooming season. Skycrapers are technically perennials, but not hardy around Cincinnati so we treat them as bigger and more exciting annuals.

05 Roman and Snow
Plant ‘Roman Red’ with ‘Snow Nymph’ for shifting tones throughout the season


We like how two particular Salvias play off of each other: ‘Roman Red’ and ‘Snow Nymph’. Ball FloraPlant pulls in the fire engine red for ‘Roman Red’ from the darcyi-types, but with a larger flower, a smaller leaf size and a more mounding habit. When a full bed blooms, it creates an almost frothy look that complements the similar style found in ‘Snow Nymph’, a coccinea-type.

‘Snow Nymph’ is a Texas Sage, normally found down south, but Selecta has improved the species to succeed in cooler summers farther north. Both cultivars cycle their colors but at different times, so planting them together creates a bed of shifting tones throughout the season. Again, these are both tender perennials, treated as annuals around here.

06 SAL Mirage White
Petite ‘Mirage White’ puts a Salvia twist on the the delicate Euphorbia look


While ‘Mystic Spires’ goes tall, the Mirage series goes small. Mirages zig by taking a petite set of greggii-types into containers and short front-of-the-garden beds. We are especially fond of the White, which puts a Salvia twist on the delicate Euphorbia look.

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‘Golden Delicious’ works as a garden ornamental with a red Salvia-type spike


You may know this variety as the kitchen herb ‘Pineapple Sage’ but we like to grow it for the beautiful yellow leaves. Lately it’s been getting attention as a garden ornamental that works in containers as a bright foliage counterpoint to flowers. ‘Pineapple Sage’ blooms out with a slender and striking red Salvia-type spike as a garden specimen.

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Showing off the new Salvias at Field Day this year


Salvia’s diversity has made it a symbol of today’s progressive gardens. We think the garden market has pumped up demand for this plant because it represents a perfect storm of several major trends:

  1. An excellent pollinator, easily attracting popular bees and hummingbirds in very high numbers
  2. Native to North America and pre-equipped to fit into the local ecosystem of weather and beneficials
  3. A genus well-stocked with a wide range of traits for breeders to experiment
  4. New looks and new habits deliver gardens that haven’t been seen before

We've mentioned that many of these Salvias are tender perennials. It’s an important trend, not for overwintering but for season expansion. Many of the formerly southern Salvias needed a lot of heat and sun to perform their best. The fact that their zone range has crept northwards also means that we get longer, broader seasons of prime blooms than we did previously. These plants don’t mind our cloudy skies—they start to bloom furiously, earlier than before, and quit later. Annuals benefit from perennialization in unexpected ways, and this is one of them.

However, so much blooming horsepower comes at a cost. These are hungry plants and the amount of bloom is throttled by the richness of the soil, or the quality/quantity of fertilizer. A rough rule with Salvia is the leaner the soil, the leaner the display.

We believe Salvia is worth a major commitment from growers, garden centers, and landscapers. With a look that is much broader than it was before, these plants are moving into seasons, colors, sizes, and textures that we were unable to deploy until now. If you don’t work with these new varieties, you should try a few and see how they change your concept of the summer-blooming garden.