Salvias Down South: How Salvias Behave in Florida
“Oh behavvvve!” You might feel a bit like Austin Powers, international man of mystery, as you ponder intrigue in your Florida garden. Why aren’t the perennial Salvias you planted acting the way you think they should.
For example, if you're growing the culinary favorite Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) in Northern Florida and expect it to act like a woody perennial, you may be surprised when it dies back to the ground.
Yet if you’re a South Florida transplant who once grew Pineapple Sage in colder climes, you may be baffled now by its almost evergreen, nearly year-round appearance as a semi-woody subshrub. How did its tender stems get so tough, you may ask.
Other Puzzling Patterns
Or maybe your Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii) flowered bountifully in Central Florida but kicked the watering can when you planted it in subtropical South Florida.
Not all Salvias are cut out for life in the damp Southeast. The performance of those that grow well in Florida, including native species, also varies widely depending on the region of the state within which they are grown.
You can’t always count on Scarlet Sage (Salvia coccinea) – a species that likely came from Mexico and was introduced to the South so long ago that it has earned the “native” label – to behave like a perennial. While it may seem to never go dormant in USDA Zones 9 to 11, it acts like an annual in cooler areas, such as Northern Florida where it proliferates by reseeding.
Regional & Seasonal Temperature Variations
When deciding what Salvias to plant and how to care for them in Florida, you need to consider the part of the state where you live. It’s important to take into account temperature variations in four basic areas -- North, Central, South and Tropical Florida.
North Florida (Zones 8a to 9a). If you live in the northern panhandle or north of Daytona Beach, you know that this part of Florida has distinct seasons. There are enough days of winter chill to grow apples and pears, but way too much for citrus. For Salvias adversely affected by sustained cold weather, this means it’s a good idea to winter mulch up north. Remove the mulch as soon as Spring arrives. Locating your Salvias where they will receive some afternoon shade can be helpful during the fierce heat of Summer wherever you live in Florida.
Central Florida (9a to 9b). Winter is milder for those who live mid-state near cities such as Tampa and Orlando. Frosts are infrequent, so you probably don’t have to mulch your Salvias. Late-blooming Salvias, such as Prairie Sage (Salvia azurea) and Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha) have a better chance of flowering here.
South Florida (Zones 9b-10b). This subtropical area is primarily Zone 10 country that includes most of the islands in the Florida Keys. Citrus loves it here, but the combination of Summer heat and humidity may be too much for Autumn Sage, which does best in Zones 7 to 9. Scarlet Sage, which is also known as Tropical Sage, is a good choice.
Tropical Florida (Zone 11). Key West comprises the main part of this tiny region, which is generally hot and humid. Salvias aren’t common here, but you may want to try Pineapple Sage or Scarlet Sage in amended soil, because they grow well in Zone 11.
Florida Native Salvias
Native plants have developed over long periods of time to fit into their environment harmoniously. They thrive under local conditions, including soil quality and moisture. Other native plants, as well as native animals including insects, keep them in line so they don’t become invasive.
Sometimes, however, changing local conditions can cause a native species to decrease drastically. That’s the case with Nettle Leaf Sage, which we have priced inexpensively so gardeners in Florida and other states where it is an endangered may try to help reestablish this lovely plant. Due to its rarity, demand sometimes outpaces production. However, we are glad to fill pre-orders when new plants are ready for shipping.
Nettle Leaf Sage (Salvia urticifolia), Zones 6 to 9. This Salvia requires partial to full shade. Its deep purple and white flowers have dramatic beelines that guide pollinators toward pollen. Nettle Leaf Sage grows approximately 24 inches tall and wide.
Mealy Cup Sage (Salvia farinacea), Zones 7 to 10. Flowers by the Sea carries the extremely hardy Henry Deulberg Blue Mealy Cup Sage and its mate Augusta Deulberg White Mealy Cup Sage, which were discovered in a Texas cemetery. They average 36 inches tall and wide. Mealy Cup sages are known for blooming from Spring through Autumn.
Prairie Sage (Salvia azurea), Zones 7 to 9. This is a good sage to tuck among ornamental grasses and other perennials where its cerulean blue can poke out and capture attention from late Summer through Fall. It’s compact – growing 24 inches tall and 18 inches wide – and has little foliage.
Scarlet or Tropical Sage (Salvia coccinea) Zones 7 to 11. At FBTS, we sell a variety of Scarlet Sage cultivars; our most popular is Salvia coccinea ‘Forest Fire.’ Despite its common name, Scarlet Sage also comes in white and pink cultivars. It grows up to 48 inches tall and 24 inches wide. Bloom time is spring through fall.
Other Florida Favorites
Online gardening forums are a great place to discover information about what plants grow well in a particular area. Here is a short list of some non-native Salvias that Florida gardeners praise: Limelight Mexican Sage (Salvia mexicana ‘Limelight’); Mexican Bush Sage (Salvia leucantha); Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans); and Roseleaf Sage (Salvia involucrata).
More details about these favorites will appear in our next “Salvias Down South” post about Florida. We’ll also talk about moisture-loving Salvias, because, as we’ve mentioned before, Florida is a very wet place. And “Oh baby!” you don’t need the super-sleuthing ability of Austin Powers to see that thirsty Salvias might behave very well in Florida.
Salvia mexicana 'Limelight'
Salvia leucantha 'Greenwood'
Salvia coccinea 'Forest Fire'
Salvia coccinea 'Summer Jewel Red'
Salvia coccinea 'Coral Nymph'
Salvia elegans 'Tangerine'
Salvia elegans 'Honey Melon'
Salvia elegans 'Golden Delicious'