James H. Schutte
Plant Common Name
The genus Salvia has yielded many indispensible ornamentals and culinary herbs without which the world’s gardens and cuisine would not be the same. Comprising more than 900 species, it is the largest genus in the mint family. Its various members are distributed worldwide in temperate and tropical areas, with a concentration of diversity in Central and Southwestern Asia and Central and South America. In addition to their seasoning and ornamental functions, some salvias have been valued since ancient times for their medicinal properties, and the name Salvia is in fact derived from the Latin word salvere, meaning “to save”.
Extremely variable in habit and form, salvias may be annual, biennial or perennial, herbaceous or woody, and either evergreen or deciduous. All are characterized by square stems, and carry pairs of leaves held opposite one another. The leaves may have smooth, toothed or scalloped edges, and can be either simple (without divisions or indentations) or pinnate (feather-shaped). Foliage texture may be smooth, rough or hairy, and the leaves are often highly aromatic.
Tubular, two-lipped flowers are borne in loose to dense whorls or opposite pairs around single or branched stems. Appearing in nearly every color imaginable, they range from white to blues and purples, and shades of red, yellow, orange and pink. The calyces, or outer bud coverings, are sometimes also brightly colored. The flowers are attractive to bees, hummingbirds and numerous insects, and have a unique mechanism to ensure cross-pollination. When an insect enters a flower, it depresses a lever which causes the pollen-producing stamens to deposit pollen on the back of the visitor. When the insect visits another flower, the pollen is deposited on the female stigma which is positioned to correspond with the placement of the pollen.
The salvia most often used for cooking is Salvia officinalis, or common sage. This semi-woody perennial has been used for many centuries to make medicinal teas and poultices, and was particularly popular in the Middle Ages. Native to the Mediterranean regions of Europe and northern Africa, it is easy to grow and thrives in sunny, well-drained locations. Varieties of common sage are available which have colorful purple or variegated foliage, and are beautiful as well as delicious.
Numerous salvia species, cultivars and hybrids exist which are prized for their beautiful flowers and aesthetic qualities in the garden. Many are quite tall and most bear long, colorful spikes of showy blooms. Hardiness and culture differs according to type, but most generally prefer sunny, fertile, well-drained locations. Regular watering is preferable, and even drought-tolerant species benefit from a deep soaking at least once a month. Some types flower more freely and become bushier when pinched back occasionally. Select varieties whose growth requirements match the site conditions, and the plants will thrive beautifully.