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Salvia or Sage?

Sages are hardworking, well-known, utilitarian herb plants. The many shades of culinary sage appear regularly in gourmet magazines, gracing bottles of vinegar and platters of turkey.

Say Salvia, though, and many times a blank stare comes your way. Or, the conversation turns from cooking to landscaping where visions of tubular red flowers hypnotic to hummingbirds take center stage.

In truth, all SAGES are SALVIAS. Throughout the ages the term sage has been closely aligned with cooking or medicinal use and the term salvia has been given to the more ornamental members of this genus. Nevertheless, Salvia is the Latin name, or Genus, given to all these plants. So, while the everyday common nickname may be Tricolor Garden Sage, its real name will always be Salvia officinalis “Tricolor”.


Pt. Sal Sage
Ornamental Salvia Pt. Sal Sage

Since it is accepted practice to discuss the ornate flowering shrubs of this genus as Salvias, here we will rant and rave about the beautiful members of this club.

Every time a new count is made it seems the number of known Salvias has risen by a hundred. Right now, it is somewhere between and 800 and 900 different plants. A lot of these will never be allowed to join the ‘have to have it’ club. Some grow only in tropical places, some have flowers that are almost non-existent, and some have few leaves or sloppy form. We have grown probably two hundred of them and have chosen our tried and true favorites to offer you.


Or which zone and what color?

Often the first ornamental Salvia many are introduced to is the so-called annual salvia that populates cell packs and garden centers in the spring. These include Salvia splendens, originally called Scarlet Sage, but now available in a confetti of colors and Salvia farinacea, known as Victoria Sage which is usually purple, sometimes white and lately both white and purple on the same plant. Both S. splendens and S.farinacea are actually tender perennials. S. farinacea has survived winters here in Zone 8 but does not like our hot summers. Victoria Sage makes an excellent everlasting. It flowers almost all season and is tidy enough to be planted in close to the house or near the front of a colorful border but often does not make it through our winters.

Indigo Spires Salvia, S. farinacea x longispica, is a hybrid of Victoria Sage. It is a large shrub, hardy from zone 7, growing to four feet with incredibly long wands up to 18 inches of bluish purple flowers and prefers summers on the coast where it is cooler.


A preponderance of Salvias that are widely available are so tender they must be grown as annuals in all but frost free areas. These include: the almost black flowered Salvia Discolor, or Andean Silver Leaf Sage; the showy maroon flowered S. buchanii or Velvet Sage; the luxuriously blue flowered S. cacaliifolia or Guatemalan Leaf Sage and its many versions; S. coccinea or Texas Hummingbird Sage, a vibrant red that is now available in pink; the late blooming fuzzy orange flowered salvia, S. confertiflora or Red Velvet Sage; the infamous(for its religious use) S. divinorum or Diviner’s Sage with its white flowers and electric blue bracts; the heavenly fruit scented S. dorsiana or Fruit Scented Sage; S. gesneraeflora with its big scarlet flowers; S. guarnitica or Black and Blue Sage with its long long blue flowers; S. mexicana and its many varieties including Limelight with its flirtatious chartreuse bracts and blue flowers; S. patens or Gentian Sage with 3 inch long blue flowers and S. Van Houttii or Brazillian Sage with its 2 inch deep mahogany red tubes. Most of these tropical beauties like afternoon shade in the hottest areas. They tend to be large almost sloppy in form no matter how they are grown. Often, they are described as back of the border plants because of their lack of sturdiness. Planting them closely with other large perennials to prop them up will show them off to their full advantage. While these are all beautiful, they are not easily grown in most areas and we have chosen to focus on more widely adaptable Salvias.


There are quite a few ornamental Salvias that do quite well in Zones 8-11. These include the evergreen S. apiana or White Sage used in Native American religious observances. A slow growing candelabra shaped plant with extremely waxy almost white leaves, the plant itself grows, eventually, to about three feet. With its long rather drab flower stems, it reaches about five feet. S. apiana is sometimes called Bee Sage because the bees do love the small white flowers.

S. aurea or 24 Karat Gold Sage has the most unusually colored flower we have ever seen. It is a golden brown and makes an exciting statement in the garden.

S. brandegii or Island Black Sage is a monster of a plant with amazing light blue flowers. It should only be used where space is not an issue!

The five foot tall and ten foot wide S. canariensis or Canary Island Sage makes a bold statement with its profuse pink bracted flowers, and its large, woolly, arrowhead shaped leaves.

S. clevelandii or Cleveland Sage is a sprawling, gray, aromatic California Native. Indeed, just one stem in the house might make the air too heavily scented for some. Also very water thrifty, this plant explodes from its three by five foot shrubby height and width to five feet by eight or ten feet with its absolutely incredible blooms. The long flower stems are graced with several pompoms of purplish blue flowers.

The most important tip for growing Cleveland Sage is to prune the bush for shape after it blooms. Leaving the old flower heads will cause the bush to open up in the center. Sometimes hard pruning can correct this and sometimes not. This sage can be used both fresh and dried in cooking. Add carefully; it is very strong. There are several varieties of S. clevelandii but we have not found them to be significantly different.

S. clevelandii “Gracias” or Gracias Sage is a cross with Cleveland Sage but is more of a spreading ground cover than upright shrub. These are all great as pruned specimens or as a way of naturally filling large spaces.

S. dolomitica or South African Sage has pale lavender flowers with striking maroon bracts.

S. leucophylla Point Sal Sage reaches a whopping six feet high and ten feet or more wide with graceful pink pom-pom blooms.

S. elegans or Pineapple Sage is herbaceous and usually makes it through our zone 8 winters. Where summer temperatures are mild this plant gets quite large. In Zone 8, it rarely exceeds four feet in flower. And, flowers are what this Salvia is all about. It produces lots of long lipstick red tubes that drive Hummingbirds wild. The leaves are fruity scented but do not carry this aroma into flavor. Pineapple Sage flowers can be used as a decorative culinary garnish.

S. leucantha or Mexican Bush Sage is an herbaceous ornamental with long spikes of velvety flowers. It has a purple calyx and a white flower. S. leucantha or All Purple Mexican Bush Sage has both a purple calyx and a purple flower. Both are extremely striking in the landscape and usually reach about five feet tall. In Zone 8 they die back to the ground. In milder zones they benefit by being sheared to the ground in the winter. They can be sheared in late spring or early summer also to encourage sturdier growth. The crown increases in diameter each year, but it never needs to be divided.

Anthony Parker Sage S. leucantha “Anthony Parker” or Anthony Parker Sage is a cross between Mexican Bush Sage and Pineapple sage and may be a bit more tender. It has slender dark purple flowers.

S. melissodora or Grape Scented Sage is a deciduous five to six foot tall open shrub. It is covered with small yet striking light purple flowers from late summer until frost. The leaves make a refreshing tea and the flowers have the remarkable flavor of Grape Kool-Aid.

S. mellifera or Black Sage is a sprawling brilliant green leaved bush that can cover 15 feet or more in diameter, but reaches only about three to four feet in height. It suffers from frost bite at about 12 degrees. Black Sage is a California Native with similar but lighter pom-poms than Cleveland Sage. Black Sage is one of the earliest blooming Salvias in the garden. It usually starts blooming in late January and continues for about six weeks. It never needs pruning or dividing. It can be pruned after flowering for shape. Highly aromatic and sticky, this bush is a good choice for covering hillsides.

S. microphylla or Baby Salvia has a most unique stem growth. New branches are variegated in alternating patterns of black and white. Vibrant red flowers and glossy green leaves make Baby Salvia an excellent choice to add to the garden.

Wild Watermelon brings fragrance and abundant pink blooms that gardeners and hummingbirds flip for. The S. microphylla group which also includes Dennis’ Pink and Hot Lips are a little more tender than the S. greggiis which includes Maraschino Cherry Salvia and Raspberry Royal Salvia, Lavender Autumn Sage, Teresa’s Texas Sage, Salmon Texas Sage, Variegated Autumn Sage and Wild Thing Autumn Sage. Some report that the S. microphylla group can tolerate zone 7 while the S. greggiis may go to zone 6. These all bloom from spring until fall should be cut back in summer (where summers are over 90) and late fall.

These are all evergreen shrubs reaching between a two and four feet tall. Their colors range from bicolor orange and yellows to deep reds and pastel peaches. They flower early, and where temperatures stay below 90, they flower continuously until frost or early winter. In hotter areas, their spring and fall bloom is spectacular but they should be pruned in the summer and again in the winter when the bloom is finished to form an agreeable shrub. Maraschino Cherry and other S. greggii’s can be used, preferably dried, as seasoning and their flowers are great for salads and garnishes. The Variegated Autumn Sage does a great job of lighting up partially shady areas.


As mentioned above Indigo Spires Salvia is rated for zone 7 where it may benefit with a little protection during severe winters.

S. chamaedryoides or Mexican Blue Sage is a two foot tall by four foot wide evergreen with small leaves and electric blue flowers. Very water conserving; it blends well with pinks and other blues.

S. guarantitica or Black and Blue Sage has a gorgeously colored flower that we find likes a bit of shade in our hot summer area.

And, while the S. greggii group is often rated zone 8 we have had reports of them surviving nicely in zone 7 or even in zone 6.

S. uliginosa or Bog Sage is not a bog plant at all, in fact, if kept too wet, it becomes lanky. The tall four foot stems of Bog Sage are reddish and reedy and reminiscent of miniature bamboo. The flowers are true blue and prolific in summer. About midway through the growing season when the temperatures start to soar, cutting Bog Sage to about a foot encourages sturdy stems and continued bloom.


Although there are not as many hardy ornamental Salvias as there are tender ones, there are some that perform equally well in Zone 4 or Zone 10. The Salvia x superbas, sometimes referred to as S. nemerosas, are the most notable of these. Many varieties of S.x superba are available. They include Blue Queen, Rose Queen, and May Night, (1997 Perennial Plant of the Year). These plants grow from between 18 inches and 36 inches and tend to bloom in early spring and again in the fall.

Another very hardy Salvia, S. pratensis or Blue Meadow Clary, also produces its dark green-pebbled leaves close to the ground, like those above. However, the overall growth pattern is looser, with fewer but longer flower spikes. S. transylvanica is very similar to S. pratensis and equally as lovely.

Also, very hardy is S. sclarea or Clary Sage. This plant is classified as a biennial but often lives longer than two years. It has medicinal properties and has been used as a commercial additive to tobacco. The flowers are white with lilac markings. The variety S. turkestanica has darker pink colored flowers and is more attractive. Similar in growth and also classified a biennial is S. argentea or Silver Sage has striking silvery, soft foliage. These three biennial Salvias have large, broad, low growing leaves that can reach eight or more inches across. Flowering usually occurs the second year, but can sometimes be prolonged by removing the flower stalk before seeds sets.

For many, the greatest attraction of ornamental Salvias is the allure it has for the hummingbird. The tubular shape of these flowers is necessary for the tiny birds tongue. Salvias are not alone in the shape of their flowers. They are in good company among Penstemon, Musa (Banana), Aquilegia (Columbine), Leonitis ocymifolia or Lion’s Tail, Bouvardia, Loeselia, Ocotillo, Beloperone, Gray California Fuchsia and Hummingbird Flower.

Salvias certainly do provide a most amazing palate of colors, array of shapes and range of hardiness. The fire engine red Pineapple Sage and Texas Hummingbird Sage (S. coccinea) are most often relegated to the Hummingbird attractant category. But, red is not the only color that attracts these fluorescent marvels, almost all varieties, including purples, like velvety purple S. leucantha, are also frequented by hummingbirds.


Culinary Sages
Tricolor Garden Sage and Golden Garden Sage are flanked by Dwarf Garden Sage.

Flavor, Flowers and Folklore

With so many elaborate ornamental plants, it is kind of surprising that the sage most of us are most familiar with is good old Garden Sage. Salvia officinalis is from Zone 5 through 11 and blooms profusely for about three or four weeks in spring. Planted in a row or in a block it is one of the prettiest of all the Salvias. Garden Sage easily grow s to three feet and has bluish purple flowers. Prune back beyond the flowers when the bloom is finished, taking care not to prune into wood that has no growth showing. The flowers make an attractive garnish in salads, butters, soft cheeses and ice cubes.

There are several variations of Culinary Garden Sage. These include S.officinalis icterina or Golden Garden Sage which has green and gold irregularly variegated leaves, S. officinalis purpurea or Purple Garden Sage which has dark purple leaves when new that turn a soft green with age, S. officinalis tricolor or Tricolor Garden Sage which has leaves that are variegated cream, green and pink, S. officianlis Berggarten or Berggarten Sage which has the largest leaves of all the Garden Sages, S. officinalis minum or Dwarf Garden Sage and Window Box Garden Sage which is the smallest of all the Garden Sages and is particularly nice in a container. All of these have basically the same flavor. The Golden and the Tricolor Sages may be a tad less winter hardy than the zone 5 rating assigned to common Garden Sage.

As mentioned before, Cleveland Sage is also culinary. Go easy though; it is very powerful.

Spice Jar Sage

Oddly enough the sage that is in the spice jar at the market is not S. officinalis, but rather S. fruticosa or Greek Sage. This Sage is hardy in zones 8-11 and that may be why S. officinalis is grown and used more in this country. Greek Sage can be grown as an annual and usually reaches about three feet each season. It is an odd twisted looking plant with exceptional flavor.


Culinary Sages are best used fresh, either whole or ground, but they can be dried. For drying large amounts of leaves, wait until after the plants have grown back after pruning blooms. Wash the plants in the garden with a fine spray of water the night before; and the next morning, when the dew has dried, cut stems as long as possible without cutting into old wood. Hang these in bunches of three of four in a dark, dry, clean area. As soon as they are crispy dry, strip the leaves (whole, if possible) and seal them in an airtight container placed out of direct light. The flavor should remain potent for three or four months, hopefully— at least until spring brings fresh, tender leaves again. Besides the traditional use in stuffing, Sage is good with pork, sausage, other meats, and cheese. It is often combined with thyme and used with beans and in soups. Use Sage with fruits in vinegars; if the vinegar is a light colored elixir, try one of the variegated forms. The flowers make an attractive garnish in salads, butters, soft cheeses, and ice cubes.

Fresh picked ‘hands’ of Sage tips can be used to make wreaths or tussie mussies. They dry well and have that heavenly Sage fragrance. Just one more reason to give Garden Sage a good size space in your garden.


Like all plants, Sages like soil that is alive with activity. If your soil drains poorly, then add organic amendments like compost. Mulching can also help amend the soil. The mulch should be about three inches deep and pulled slightly away from the stem of the plant. If your soil is healthy, you probably won’t need to worry about how acid or alkaline it is. If your soil is very acidic, then adding a little lime will help Salvias to grow well. An organically maintained soil usually needs no fertilizer. The tender Salvias tend to need more water and some afternoon shade in zones that reach over 90 in the summer. Salvias that grow in Zones 7 and lower are much less water thirsty and can take full sun in all but the desert regions of the southwest.

Culinary Sages should be positioned close to the kitchen and receive at least 6 hours of sun each day. The sun is necessary to develop the full flavor of the Sage and the proximity to the kitchen assures the Sage will be used often.

Sages should either be pruned after flowering or pruned for shape as needed. Pruning is important to maintain the esthetic appearance of the shrub. Never prune further down the stem than where there are leaves. Avoid pruning hard in late fall, this sometimes causes the demise of the plant in the winter.

Sage can attract both spider mites and aphids. Usually, over time, beneficial insects will rectify the problem in an organic garden. It is unfortunate that first the pesky bug must establish itself for the helpful bug to arrive. Spraying with water should be the first method of control tried. Hose off the plants on the tops and bottoms of the leaves several times each week. If you need stronger measures use a horticultural soap and follow directions precisely. Here the ladybugs are not far behind the flowers and they do an amazing job of cleaning the plants up.


All Salvias can be grown in containers. Pots should accommodate the eventual size of the plant. Those grown as annuals, can be grouped in large pots together. This works especially well with the S. splendens and S. farinacea varieties. The larger tender perennials may also be tub grown but do better in individual pots. In very cold areas, these can either be discarded each year or over wintered in a warm, well-lit area.

Hardy Salvias can also be pot grown, but need to be repotted with fresh soil and an appropriate size pot each spring. Potting soil should be coarse with extra perlite and organic fertilizer mixed in. Pot grown Salvia may be watered with liquid organic fertilizer throughout the growing season.


Historically, S. officinalis has always been a very important addition to the medicinal arsenal. The Chinese valued it above their blacl tea for its healing properties. Sage tea was then, and still is, primarily used as a gargle for sore throat and as an aid to digestion. Sage is now also being examined closely for the value of the natural estrogens it contains and the possibility that it may help with some symptoms of menopause, hot flashes in particular. There are many powerful active constituents in sage some of which have been found to be antioxidant.

A sage tea can be made by steeping one teaspoon of dried S. officinalis (any variety) in one cup of hot water for about 10 minutes. Spanish Sage makes a less astringent tea with all the same benefits as Garden Sage.

Because there are many different volatile oils in all herbs, a qualified practitioner should be consulted before using. Pregnant women should avoid taking sage essential oil and alcohol extracts internally.

It is no coincidence that Salvia is the name of this genus. The Latin salvere means to be saved. The infinite variety of Salvias and the way they enhance our lives is truly a wondrous salvation.

Salvias make delightful additions to our Edible Flower Herb Garden Six Pack.