The Power of Scent

First posted on Aug 30, 2012

The Power of Scent

Humans have long gathered and cultivated a variety of plants for their oils, but from the medicinal to the spiritual to the culinary, certain members of the Salvia genus stand out for both their strong fragrances and their many uses. Salvias' pungent scents come from the aromatic oils inside their cells. Known as esters, terpenes and aromatics -- or the organic building blocks of scent -- these aromatic compounds are released when a plant's leaves, flowers or seeds are bruised or crushed.

Terpenes can also be distilled as essential oils. Research shows that essential oils from a number of Salvia species have anti-microbial properties, which helps explain the plants' traditional use to treat wounds, bleeding gums, sore throats and arthritis. And that's not even mentioning Salvia's long history as an ingredient in perfume, incense, smudge sticks, sachets and potpourri.

While it's also true that not all Salvias smell pleasant, many varieties are grown specifically for the pungent or even sweet aromas that they release into the air. The following Salvias are among our top picks for the best-smelling varieties in the garden.

Salvia dorisiana

Also known as Fruit Scented Sage, Salvia dorisiana fills the garden with a strong, luscious fragrance that's reminiscent of tropical fruit punch that's been spiked with a healthy dose of pineapple. This sage doesn't just smell delicious ­ it's also a gorgeous addition to the landscape.

Salvia dorsiana grows to 4 feet tall and blooms from late fall through the winter with spikes of large, magenta-pink blossoms that draw hummingbirds with their delicate tubular shape. Even when not blooming, its large, heart-shaped foliage brightens the garden with lively, lime-green color and a gently fuzzy texture.

Native from Southern Mexico to Honduras, the name "dorisiana" stems from Doris, which means the bounty of the sea. In Greek mythology, Doris was the daughter of Oceanus, the personification of the ocean-stream that circles the earth at the Equator. Doris had some pretty impressive family connections; one of her 50 sea nymph daughters married Poseidon, and another was mother to Achilles. Appropriately, S. dorisiana grows well in coastal gardens.

This fruity, fragrant perennial is hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture Zones 9 to 11. It prefers rich soil and regular irrigation, and thrives in full sun to partial shade exposures. S. dorisiana also grows well in containers and produces lovely blossoms for arrangements.

Salvia elegans

When bruised or crushed, the foliage of Salvia elegans releases a fresh, bright scent that's redolent of freshly cut pineapple, leading to its common name of Pineapple Sage. This semi-woody perennial is native to Mexico and Guatemala, where its natural habitat includes mountainside pine and oak forests.

Full size S. elegans grows up to 3 feet in warm, inland regions, and even taller -- up to 5 feet -- in cooler, coastal landscapes. It blooms with dramatic spikes covered with bright scarlet flowers that attract hummingbirds. The flowers are tasty and make a sweet, honeysuckle-like addition to salads or fruit plates. This edibility and fragrance is also characteristic of shorter, tidier varieties of this autumn blooming species that we grow at Flowers by the Sea Farm. These include Elk Sonoran Red Pineapple Sage (S. elegans 'Elk Sonoran Red'), which is the earliest blooming variety. It's perennial in Zones 9 to 11. In areas where winters are cold, Elk Sonoran Red is a fine container sage or annual for sunny locations. Give it rich soil and regular irrigation.

Tangerine, Honey Melon, and Golden Delicious are other small, highly scented types of Pineapple Sage that FBTS grows. Tangerine only grows to 18 inches tall and is a perfect choice for small spaces, containers, or groundcover due to spreading, dense growth. The foliage has a distinct citrus smell that lends a touch of the exotic to the garden. Bees and hummingbirds are attracted to its dark red blossoms, which last for months with proper care.

Honey Melon, also provides a strong, fruity scent and has hummingbird-attracting red blooms that last for months. A 2-foot-tall variety, it's a welcome addition to the landscape or a container garden.

For a splash of bright foliage, the Golden Delicious variety can't be beat. This low-maintenance sage has red blooms that contrast dramatically with yellow-green foliage, all packed with characteristic pineapple fragrance. Its heat, drought and deer resistance make this a great filler in container gardens or a groundcover in borders and beds.

Salvia spathacea

Salvia spathacea, or Hummingbird Sage, may be best known as your garden's number one hummingbird magnet. However, this California native is also grown for the fresh, minty and slightly sweet aroma that wafts from its sticky, heart-shaped foliage. Hummingbird sage grows in gently spreading mounds, making it a perfect ground cover for partially shaded sites. Its long-lasting, red-pink blossoms attract beneficial pollinators with their abundance of sweet nectar, and their magenta bracts keep this plant attractive even when its done flowering.

S. spathacea grows to 2 feet tall with a 4 foot spread. It's hardy in USDA Zones 8 to 11 and prefers humus-rich, well-drained soil. It grows in a range of varieties, including  Topanga — a wide spreading, richly scented, 3-foot-tall cultivar with deep-pink blossoms and burgundy bracts — and yellow-blooming Avis Keedy, which has mounding, scented foliage and bright blooms that age to white. 

Salvia gravida

Add a minty, earthy fragrance – slightly reminiscent of a steaming cup of fresh loose-leaf tea -- and visual interest to your garden with Salvia gravida or Gravid Sage. A native of Michoacan in southwestern Mexico, this aromatic sage produces showy, 12-inch-long racemes of showy, red-magenta blossoms that hang from arching branches. S. gravida blooms from winter through spring.

Gravid Sage can grow to more than 5 feet tall and may require support from a trellis, wall, or nearby tree. It may need protection from winter wind or rain. Hardy in USDA Zones 8 to 11, it thrives in rich, well-drained soil and sites with regular irrigation and sunny to partially shaded exposures.

Salvia melissodora

Though commonly known as Grape Scented Sage, some believe that Salvia melissodora actually smells more like lavender. Long used as a medicinal plant by the Tarahuama, an indigenous people of northwestern Mexico, gardeners prize this hardy evergreen for its powerfully scented, gray-green foliage and stunning pale lavender-blue blossoms. It's also a favorite among those who want to attract hummingbirds, butterflies and bees to their garden.

Though Grape Scented Sage can reach up to 6 feet tall in its native habitat, in the garden this dense, tidy shrub grows to about 3 feet tall with a similar spread. It prefers sunny spots with excellent drainage and is quite drought-resistant; in fact, it requires minimal irrigation once established. Salvia melissodora is hardy in USDA Zones 8 to 11.

Salvia clevelandii

Commonly known as California Blue Sage, the scent of Salvia cleveandii is familiar to anyone who's ever taken a stroll through the California chaparral. This native sage is prized for its blue-violet to lilac-blue blossoms, which attract hummingbirds and other pollinators. Unlike some other sages that must be rubbed to release their aroma, the earthy, savory scent of S. clevelandii wafts through the air all on its own. In fact, its dried foliage is often used to scent sachets and potpourris.

S. cleveandii tolerates drought and thrives in well-drained, sunny sites. It grows in shrub form up to 5 feet high and its flower spikes can add another foot to its height. Speaking of flowers, they make gorgeous and fragrant additions to cut arrangements. California Blue Sage is hardy in USDA Zones 8 to 11.

It's also available in a range of varieties and hybrids, including Pozo Blue or Gray Musk Sage. This hybrid of California Blue Sage and California Purple Sage tolerates a range of soil types and is cold hardy to USDA Zone 8. It grows quickly up to 3 feet tall and produces purple-blue blooms for months atop its aromatic, fuzzy gray foliage.

Another popular variety is Winnifred Gilman, which has musky scented, silvery-green foliage.

Salvia apiana

If you've ever burned a smudge stick, it was likely made with dried Salvia apiana, also called White Sage. This California native has a distinct, pungent scent that's redolent of a pine forest. Indigenous peoples have long prized this sage's woody, slightly resinous aroma and utilized its medicinal and spiritual properties. Traditionally, S. apiana has been used to scent everything from shampoo to sweatlodge ceremonies; California's Diegueno tribe used to rub crushed leaves on their skin to eliminate body odor before hunting, and many groups burn dried foliage during purification rituals.

In the garden, White Sage brightens the landscape with its stiff, white foliage topped with white-to-lavender blossoms that attract pollinators. It grows slowly to 3 feet tall, maintains a compact, low-maintenance form, prefers sunny, well-drained sites, and is hardy in USDA Zones 8 to 11.

Salvia canariensis 'Lancelot'

Named for its native island habitat, the large, shrubby Salvia canariensis or Wooly Canary Island Sage fills the garden with a woody, earthy scent. One of the smaller, more compact varieties that we grow at FBTS is Lancelot Wooly Canary Island Sage (S. canariensis 'Lancelot'). Lancelot has deep lavender flowers surrounded by deep rosy-lavender bracts. It grows up to 4 feet tall and 30 inches wide.

Lancelot's blossoms attract butterflies and honeybees from summer into fall. This heat-tolerant sage needs full sun and well-drained soil. It resists drought once established, but grows best when provided with average watering.

Salvia caymanensis

A true rarity, Salvia caymanensis or Cayman Sage was thought to be extinct for almost half a century. One of Grand Cayman Island's 21 endemic flora species, no one had glimpsed this aromatic sage growing since 1967. After 2004's Hurricane Ivan, conservationists from the Darwin Initiative postulated that conditions might be ripe for a comeback, so they posted “wanted” signs around the island. A few weeks later, a motorist spotted a Cayman Sage blooming by the side of a road.

Today, this still-critically endangered species is cultivated by England's Royal Botanical Gardens. In the garden or greenhouse, this fragrant sage's pungent scent really stands out. Both its dense, gray-green foliage and tiny blue-white blossoms are aromatic, emitting a slightly resinous, woody yet almost-fruity scent with minty overtones.

Hardy in USDA Zones 9 to 11, Cayman Sage grows as a shrubby perennial in warmer climates and as an annual in cooler zones. This 18-inch tall plant thrives in rich, well-drained, and well-irrigated soil and prefers full sun to partially shaded exposures. It also makes a fragrant addition to container gardens.

A Scented Stroll

After you've planted your Salvias, take a stroll through your garden just after the sun goes down on a warm summer evening or following a light rainfall. Nothing quite compares to the rich, calming scents that float into the air as you brush past these aromatic sages! For more information about fragrant sages, please call or email us at FBTS.


Edited Dec 18, 2020 04:00 PM
Alicia Rudnicki for FBTS


There are no comments yet.