If you’re looking for reliable plants that bloom in an array of colors through the heat of summer, sages are the plants for you. I’m not referring to culinary sage (Salvia officinalis, which deserves a spot in your herb garden), but rather the ornamental plants that are a staple in East Texas gardens.
Their blooms provide season-long color in hues ranging from red to yellow to blue to purple to white; their scented leaves are resistant to deer, and their nectar-rich flowers attract pollinators to your garden. You can even enjoy them inside as long-lasting cut flowers in bouquets. Most Salvias prefer full sun and well-drained soil to look and perform their best, but there are some that are suitable for the part-shade garden.
Mealycup sage, Salvia farinacea, is a Texas native that blooms in blue, blue-violet, or white, depending on variety. They all grow about two to three feet tall and wide, including their foot-tall flower spikes. The foliage tends to be on the grey-green side, which makes a nice contrast in the border. The plants are a little lanky in part sun locations such as my garden, but they still bloom. While you’re looking for mealycup sage at the garden center, you might also run into one of its hybrids such as Indigo Spires or the more compact Mystic Spires (Salvia longispicata x farinacea). These hybrids have similar color palettes – a bit more true blue than mealycup – and texture in the garden. Indigo Spires is suited for the back of the border, as it tends to sprawl, or planted near sturdier companions to contain it. Mystic Spires, at only 18-30 inches, can even be used in a container.
Anise sage (Salvia guaranitica) is a favorite in my garden, as it’s a great performer in my part shade. Black-and-blue Salvia has blooms that are a deep cobalt blue with dark, almost black calyxes at the base of each flower. It grows to three feet tall, starts blooming in spring, and doesn’t stop till a hard freeze (its blooms repeat better with deadheading, if you have the time). Once established, anise sage will spread, so you’ll have plenty to share with unsuspecting friends and neighbors. Hummingbirds visit my black-and-blue salvia each morning, ignoring the feeder that’s two feet away. Another variety of anise sage, Brazilian sage, has the same blue blooms but with green calyxes. You can find anise sage in lighter shades of blue or different color calyxes, as breeders continue to improve this beautiful sage. Friendship sage (Salvia ‘Amistad’) was bred from anise sage, but has deep purple blooms and a grander form. In my garden the plants stand 3-4 feet tall, with lots of upright branching – one plant is easily four feet wide.
For a smaller spot to fill, you might look at Texas sage (Salvia coccinea). This Salvia has scarlet-red blooms that you can find in garden centers under the name Lady in Red, but it’s being developed in many colors, including a soft salmon pink called Coral Nymph, and the white Snow Nymph. These vase-shaped plants stay about one to two feet tall and wide, but they will re-seed to fill a larger area over time. This Texas native really loves the heat, and is tolerant of some shade.
Finally, Autumn sage (Salvia greggii) is a woodier, almost shrub-like plant, with small fragrant leaves and lots of flowers. This plant comes in almost every color, from white to purple, red to bluish, yellow, coral, and my favorite shade of fuschia. The plants grow three feet wide and tall, and with light pruning stay very tidy. Each spring, trim the stems back to about eight inches, and this will give you a gorgeous shrub that is a favorite of butterflies and hummingbirds.
We have planted most of these salvias at the Wood County Arboretum & Botanical Gardens – ask a volunteer to point them out, or look for the plant tags in the gardens. To sum it up, my sage advice is – plant salvia, and you’ll have flowers, bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds in your east Texas garden.
Lin Grado is the garden manager for the Wood County Arboretum & Botanical Gardens in Quitman, and is there each Wednesday from 8 a.m. till noon during the summer. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org – email your gardening questions and she’ll do her best to help.