Introduction to Salvia

Salvias are the backbone of my present garden in Sydney, though I grow lots of other types of plants as well. The plant directory lists the salvias I currently grow under four alphabetical groups by species or cultivar name (if the species is unknown or for hybrids). Click on the following links to access detailed plant descriptions:

Although it was their flower spires - which gave me sort of the effect of the cottage garden I craved for but couldn't succeed with - that initially attracted me to salvias, they have many other worthwhile qualities.

One of these is their sheer diversity. Salvias comprise one of the largest genera in the plant kingdom: with over 900 species and many cultivars and hybrids. They vary in size, texture and shape: from groundcover plants, to compact shrubs, to quite huge wild bushes. They come from a variety of habitats, meaning that there is one to suit almost any place in the garden: very dry spots or more moist positions, sun or part shade. Many will adapt to life in a pot. There are flower colours in almost every hue, including black and brown. Salvia have some of the most brilliant blues of all flowers, some of the most vibrant reds, and some of the prettiest pinks, as well as many other colours in between.

Many have scented leaves - pleasant or otherwise! The foliage can be quite tactile: hairy or velvety, shiny and smooth, or quite corrugated and rough. The flowers calyx may be of a similar colour to the flower or a complementary hue. The long graceful spires of flowers contrast well with other flower shapes in the garden. Most are incredibly long-blooming: over many months in a lot of cases. Many flower over summer and autumn, others bloom in winter, so they offer colour outside the traditional spring period, although there are a number that are in bloom in spring.

They have few pests to worry about - grasshoppers may have a nibble; a few types do suffer from the pernicious flea beetle, and the very velvety-leaved ones are sometimes a magnet for white fly but on the whole, there is very little to worry about. They do attract many birds which perhaps clean up pests and having the birds in the garden is a wonderful bonus. No diseases attack the ones which I grow.

Salvias are also water-wise plants. Some of them are particularly so, and can be grown in quite harsh conditions. On the other hand, most of the salvias that I grow can cope if there is a lot of rain all of a sudden. Many waterwise plants do not like that at all.

There are several different types of salvias. The beautiful herbaceous salvias which grow so well in English gardens, such as Salvia pratensis, from Europe and Asia, generally do not thrive in many parts of Sydney as they tend to rot off when it is very humid and are more suited to cooler areas, or Sydney suburbs away from the coast. One exception is Salvia forskaohlei.

Another group is comprised of shrubs from very dry regions of the world, such as California, South Africa, Mexican and Arizona deserts and the Mediterranean. They are very drought-resistant and do not need much water at all. They often have grey or silver leaves, which may be small or velvety as a way of coping with extreme heat. Not all of them thrive in Sydney but a lot do.

Where garden soil is a bit better and more moisture-retentive, the best salvias for Sydney are from the semi-tropical and tropical - often in mountainous woodland or forest - areas of South America, Central America, Mexico and Texas. On the whole these have a shrubby or semi-shrubby form. They usually have much larger leaves than the desert-type ones, and are often a little brittle, and they grow quickly to a much more substantial size than the desert ones. Some of them are cold-sensitive to a greater or lesser extent; in frost-prone gardens they may be nipped back in winter but will survive the sorts of frosts experienced in most parts of Sydney. In very cold areas, they can be kept going by taking cuttings in late summer and keeping these protected over winter. As quite of few of them grow in the wild at the edges of forests, some can cope with a little bit of shade.


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