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Book Review: The Plant Lover's Guide to Salvias

First posted on May 24, 2014

Book Review: The Plant Lover's Guide to Salvias

The Plant Lover's Guide to Salvias
by John Whittlesey
Timber Press: 2014
ISBN 978-1-60469-419-2

Potential Readers

  • Anyone who loves the colorful Salvia genus
  • Gardeners curious about the broad range of Salvias from perennials to annuals
  • Wildlife enthusiasts who want to attract bees, butterflies and hummingbirds
  • Home gardeners and landscape architects seeking drought-resistant plants

Plantsman and landscape designer John Whittlesey describes his Canyon Creek Nursery in the rural community of Oroville -- on the edge of Northern California's gold country -- as having an "extreme" Mediterranean climate. Rainfall is almost nonexistent from summer through early autumn when temperatures can reach up to 108 degrees F. Ornamental Salvias form a major part of Whittlesey's approach to these sere conditions.

The author opens his book, The Plant Lover's Guide to Salvias, with an idle. He leads readers to the back deck of his home where he drinks his morning coffee while watching bees hard at work in a container planting of Salvia x 'Wendy's Wish'. Then he takes us out his front door for a walk past Salvia clevelandii where he inhales the plant's heady, resinous fragrance as he watches hummingbirds nectaring at its flowers.

Wendy's Wish and Cleveland Sage are two of the 150 sages that Whittlesey details in-depth in this loving guide about a huge genus that he says has "changed little since being introduced into gardens." He points out that the horticultural business hasn't fiddled with Salvias to the same degree as many other flowering plants. He notes that there "are no double-flowered salvias or mega-sized flowers" so over-bred that they no longer produce nectar.

Whittlesey talks about how Salvias fit into a variety of settings from dry land and rocky landscapes to container, herbal, woodland and wildlife gardens. He provides a brief chapter explaining the characteristics that all Salvias share, traits that differentiate them from other mint family (Lamiaceae) members, and how Salvias and their pollinators have coevolved.

A closing chapter on growing and propagating Salvias touches on matters such as adaptability of Salvias to a variety of soils, cold hardiness, container cultivation, pests and diseases, pruning, sun exposure, vegetative propagation, and watering (there are "no fixed rules" except for good soil drainage). As with watering, Whittlesey says, "There are no hard-and-fast rules" for cultivating a genus that comes from so many different environments around the world. Yet Salvias tend to be easy to grow, he concludes.

The book's color photographs are plentiful and sometimes stunning, such as Whittlesey's shot of Salvia recognita (Turkish Cliff Sage) with rosy-green calyxes and creamy pink flowers surrounded by a glowing halo of fuzzy hairs. Another fine example is his close-up of a Salvia blepharophylla leaf, with hairy margins showing why the species' common name is Eyelash Sage.

Whittlesey did most of the photography. Aside from photographing his own gardens and many plants at Flowers by the Sea, he also took pictures at locations such as the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens (near FBTS), Tilden Park in Berkeley, California, and Southern California's Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden. Pictures from other sources include ones by Northern California garden journalist Jennifer Jewell, whose photo of Salvia mellifera (Black Sage) is one of the prettiest we've seen.

The Plant Lover's Guide to Salvias not only is a well-organized resource about the largest genus in the mint family but also a lovely coffee table book that may inspire anyone who opens its pages to spend time in the garden.

Edited Jul 18, 2018 05:00 PM


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