SONG OF THE SALVIA
One of the most distinguishing details in California’s native flora is the unique smell of our vegetation in general, and the amazingly unforgettable smells of certain plants in particular. Some plants are simply extraordinary. Among our best known fragrant plants are the sages, plants with the botanical name Salvia, and their relatives in the mint family, which is called Lamiaceae, formerly known as Labiatae.
In this large and diverse plant family, there are, worldwide, over 7,000 species represented in 236 genera. In the genus Salvia there are some 900 species, many of which for millennia have been cultivated for their herbal, medicinal and culinary value.
The name itself, Salvia, means “to save,” “to heal,” or “to be in good health.” California boasts 89 species, many of which are grown by native plant nurseries like Tree of Life. We also grow dozens of excellent cultivars (horticultural selections and hybrids), making Salvia an important and attractive component in every natural garden design.
In addition to the true sages (Salvia), we include several closely related plants; pitcher sage (Lepechinia), wooly blue curls (Trichostema), hedge nettle (Stachys), yerba buena (Clinopodium), plus a few others from different genera in the same plant family.
You can plant salvia with a few companions in a small space, or as a part of a large comprehensive natural garden. The key: plant Salvia with its friends and relations in order to supercharge the factors of beauty, habitat, sustainability, functionality, and overall health. Using nature as the model, these plant combinations provide more diversity as space allows. Remember nature is complex but never complicated.
Think of salvia as a musician playing solo, with a few friends, in a band, or as part of a complete orchestra. The music she makes is lovely at every level, so consider how much room you have and strike up the first song!
Here are a few simple tips on planting Salvia in any garden, small or large.
If you only have room in your garden for one plant, or you are planting just one Salvia in a pot, you can find a lot of good information about the different varieties here:
P.S. Regarding that small space or pot, consider spicing it up a bit by adding a dudleya plant, plus a nice twisted dry branch and a few rocks to make your planting more of a miniature nature scene.
If your space allows for only two plants, put in a buckwheat (Eriogonum) to keep your sage company. Buckwheats flower in summer, and sages in the spring, so the pollinators will be happy for a long season. In the wild, the two are the best of friends.
You can add a late summer/fall bloomer like goldenrod (Solidago californica) to provide flowers and attract beneficial pollinators for nearly nine consecutive months.
Salvia, Eriogonum, Solidago, Isocoma, Epilobium
In a relatively small space, (60-80 square feet, roughly 8′ by 8′) you can comfortably host the Saliva Quintet and enjoy year round bloom, provide valuable habitat on the ground for lizards etc., and find songbirds nesting in the aromatic branches. The Salvia Quintet is made up entirely of soft-branched subshrubs (similar to Salvia) with fast growth and abundant seasonal bloom. Isocoma blooms in fall and winter and Epilobium bloom in late summer. For instance, in an area 8’ x 10’ you could plant 2 Salvia, 3 Eriogonum, 3 Solidago, 1 Isocoma, and 3 Epilobium. Add in a few nice rocks and you will have a pollinator delight with superior biodiversity in a very small space.
Salvia, Eriogonum, Solidago, Isocoma, Epilobium, Rhamnus, Ceanothus, Arctostaphylos, Rhus
If you have a little more space, you can add to the Quintet a couple woody shrubs like coffeeberry (Frangula, formerly Rhamnus), California lilac (Ceanothus) and manzanita (Arctostaphylos). Rhus provides berries and nesting places. This arrangement is starting to look like a very stable native plant community.
SALVIA BIG BAND
Salvia, Eriogonum, Solidago (or Epilobium), Isocoma, Encelia, Rhamnus, Ceanothus, Arctostaphylos, Rhus, Dudleya, Asclepias, Artemisia, Encelia, native bunch grasses.
To the Combo, add some accents. In addition, bring in a few boulders, make mounds and dry stream beds with swales meandering through. The dudleyas will attract hummingbirds as the milkweeds will provide food for monarch butterfly caterpillars. The sagebrush hosts many beneficials, encelia bloom profusely in spring, and the grasses are essential to just about everyone.
Salvia, Eriogonum, Solidago, Isocoma, Rhamnus, Ceanothus, Arctostaphylos, Rhus, Dudleya, Asclepias, Artemisia, Encelia, native bunch grasses, Matilija poppy (Romneya), Penstemon, currents and gooseberries (Ribes), oak (Quercus) or bay (Umbellularia), wildflowers from seed
The Salvia Symphony is a full blown natural garden. Diversity is the key. Romneya is good for bees but also quite pleasing to the humans in the garden. Penstemon bring hummingbirds while the new woody shrubs give berries and offer more permanence. Trees provide shade and valuable habitat, and of course spring wildflowers attract numerous pollinator species. Your Salvia plant is now part of an incredible habitat symphony all day, every day, in all seasons.
Native sages and their relatives are among the easiest plants to grow. You can add them to any existing garden (especially native plant gardens) and achieve great success. You can plant them in new gardens as well, but to get the most beauty and value out of this amazing plant, place it with its various companions, tried and true, according to the space you have.
It’s no wonder that Salvia has for millennia been part of the human experience for culinary, ceremonial, medicinal and horticultural purposes. Bring some into your garden; they’re fast growers. Start a collection of the different types. You can make attractive dried arrangements from the flowers and branches to bring natural aromas into the home. And you will experience the fact that this wonderful plant type, Salvia, will truly live up to its name, “good health.”
Create Your Own Song of Salvia!
Available in Casa La Paz on November 7th through November 12th for Sage Festival.
$36 for an assortment of six 4″ plants to help you get started on your sage garden.