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Getting Started: What Are Salvias?

Feb 23, 2016

Getting Started: What Are Salvias?

Salvia is a genus, or division, in the huge, flowering mint family (Lamiaceae). So Salvias -- also called sages -- are the plants within that genus. 

Colorful, often fragrant and in some cases edible, sages are native to a wide variety of environments around the world. Most are easy to grow if you select the right types for local growing conditions. 

For example, many are drought resistant and excellent choices for dry or low water gardens. They adapt to a variety of well-drained soils -- including rocky settings -- as long as they aren't overwatered. But, at the other extreme, there are a number of Salvias that need loamy, fertile, garden soil and plentiful water.

Shrubs, Perennials and Annuals

You'll find many kinds of shrubs, including evergreens and deciduous types among Salvias. Some grow so tall that they are referred to as being "tree-like." Many shrubby Salvias combine woody growth and soft herbaceous foliage. They are subshrubs that act like perennials, dying to ground in areas with cold winters. 

Salvias also encompass a wide range of perennials, including varieties of Culinary Sage (Salvia officinalis spp. and others) that can survive cold weather and grow back year after year. 

But some perennial sages are referred to as tender. In areas with warm winters, tender perennial sages may emerge each year in spring. However, where winters are chilly, tender perennials, such as Tropical Sage (S. coccinea), are popular annuals in seasonal flowerbeds. 

Genus, Species and Hybrids

Scientific classification assigns plants to families and then to divisions within those families, each of which is called a genus. Salvia is the largest genus in the mint family and contains about 900 species. 

A species is a group of plants that have similar physical and genetic characteristics. These traits are specific to the group and aren't necessarily shared by the genus overall. You might think that all sages are Southwestern sun-loving plants, but that description only fits certain species.

Also, although some Salvia species are so closely related that they freely hybridize -- such as Autumn Sage (S. greggii) and Mountain Sage (S. microphylla) -- the likelihood of many others crossing is improbable. 

For example, Anise Scented Sages (Salvia guaranitica spp.) look and smell far different from Autumn Sages. The two species, each of which includes multiple varieties, don't appear to mate. 

Food for Tiny Wildlife

Whether short groundcovers or towering shrubs, Salvias are excellent choices for wildlife gardening. Their pollen and nectar are quality sources of protein and carbohydrates; their seed feeds many a songbird. 

Depending on species, a Salvia species may appeal to bees, butterflies or hummingbirds. Many appeal to all three as well as other insect pollinators. 

For those who live in deer country, it's good to know that unless terribly desperate, deer don't eat Salvias. It appears that powerful plant chemicals deter their taste buds.

True Sages & Truly Good Information

Salvias are known scientifically as the true sages, but there are other plants commonly called sage. These include the mint-family member Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and various kinds of Sagebrush (Artemesia spp.) from the daisy family (Asteraceae). 

Although useful, these plants aren't the kind of sages we grow at Flowers by the Sea. For information about any Salvias and companion plants we grow, please call or email us at FBTS. We're chock full of truly good advice for helping you get started growing Salvias.

Updated 1/2/2018

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Plants mentioned in this article
Ask Mr Sage is one of the most popular categories in our Everything Salvias blog. Here are a few of the latest posts:
Ask Mr. Sage: How to Place Advance Orders with FBTS - Flowers by the Sea is a mail-order nursery eliminating craziness from garden planning with advance orders and customer selection of shipping dates. Ask Mr. Sage is a regular feature based on calls and emails received by FBTS. This article details how to use our redesigned preorder process and other catalog tools for making sure you get the plants you want when you want them. Ask Mr. Sage: How to Select Plants for Garden Triumph - Planning for Salvia garden success requires following the rule of selecting the right plant for the right place. Desert sages aren't appropriate for the damp Southeast. Moisture-loving ones aren't right for desert climates where they need lots of watering to survive. Flowers by the Sea Farm and Online Nursery offers tips for selecting plants based on local climate. Ask Mr. Sage is a regular feature of the FBTS Everything Salvias Blog. Ask Mr. Sage: How Should I Prune my Salvias? - Flowers by the Sea Online Nursery specializes in Salvias and often receives questions about how to prune them. Although getting good at pruning takes practice, Salvias rebound quickly if you make mistakes. A key to successful pruning is understanding the varying needs of four main categories of sages. Ask Mr. Sage is a regular feature of the FBTS Everything Salvias Blog. Ask Mr. Sage: Do You Offer Free Shipping? - Like free lunches, free shipping is a myth. Flowers by the Sea doesn't offer free shipping, because it would require increasing plant prices to cover the cost of shipping. Read more to learn how FBTS sets fair shipping prices. Ask Mr. Sage is a regular feature of the Everything Salvias Blog and is based on calls and notes from customers. Ask Mr. Sage: Best Time to Plant Drought Resistant CA Natives - Drought resistant California native sages thrive when planted in fall. It's easier for roots to become established when soil is warm, air temperatures are cooler and precipitation is increasing. Ask Mr. Sage is a regular feature of the Everything Salvias Blog and is based on calls and emails from customers. Ask Mr. Sage: What Is Shipping in Boxes Like for Salvias? - It's understandable to worry about the condition of plants following shipment in a box. However, Flowers by the Sea Online Plant Nursery is exceedingly careful to make sure your plants arrive in healthy condition. A satisfied customer sent us the photos in this article. Step by step, they illustrate the process of unpacking and hardening off FBTS plants received by 3-day ground delivery more than 1200 miles away from our Northern California farm.