Salvias are some of the most versatile and low-maintenance plants you can grow. With over 900 different species of salvia to choose from, there’s sure to be a favorite for your garden.
Though they have a reputation for being tough and durable plants, salvias also look beautiful. Plants bloom with tubular flowers in shades of blue, red, pink, and purple with a few white and yellow varieties thrown in as well.
If you need a hardy yet ornamental plant that will consistently bloom year after year, here’s what you need to know about how to grow and care for salvia plant.
All About Salvias
Salvia refers to a large genus of plants belonging to the mint family. There is tons of variety within this group of related species and all kinds of sizes, colors, and hardiness levels.
You’re likely familiar with Salvia officinalis, common garden sage, an herb frequently used for cooking (especially around Thanksgiving). Most other types of salvia are grown for their flowers and appearance, but there are several other varieties used for their flavor.
Salvia plants average 2-3 feet in height but can grow anywhere from 1 foot to 5 feet tall. All varieties have square stems, which is a characteristic of plants from the mint family.
Culinary sage is probably the most familiar salvia plant, but there are hundreds of ornamental varieties as well. Salvias are hardy, low-maintenance plants and perennial in many areas.
Many salvias have fragrant leaves and most bloom from spring to late fall. Flowers come out in spikes of pretty tubular blooms that are attractive to passing pollinators.
Why Grow Salvia Plant?
Salvias have a lot going for them. There are many very ornamental varieties as well as ones that are attractive but more subtle with their appearance.
Most varieties are drought-tolerant and can take a lot of heat in the summer. They’re also deer and rabbit resistant, mainly because the leaves of most varieties have a strong flavor that animals don’t like much.
Salvia can be grown in USDA hardiness zones 4-10, and there are perennial varieties for every zone. If you pick the right type, your plants will return to bloom in your garden each year with minimal effort from you.
Salvia flowers are also very attractive to bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. They make a great addition to any pollinator or butterfly garden and give you the joy of seeing colorful insects flocking to your plants.
If you prefer low-maintenance gardening, salvia plants fit the bill perfectly. They can also add an edible element to your garden, depending on which variety you choose.
Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds all love salvia and will be attracted by the flowers when they bloom. Make your local pollinators happy by adding ornamental sage to your garden!
Types of Salvia
One of the best reasons to grow salvia is because of the wide range of choices available to you.
There are perennial salvias, annual salvias, deciduous types that die back in winter, evergreen varieties, and some that form woody shrubs. Varieties that are perennials in warmer regions can still be grown as annuals in colder climates.
Some varieties are native to regions of the U.S. (mainly the western half) while others are originally native to Europe and Asia.
And that’s not even getting into the different sizes that range from compact foot and a half varieties to some that get 5 feet tall. You won’t be struggling for lack of options!
The best cultivar for your garden will depend a lot on the growing conditions and climate of the area you live in. It’s worth checking into which varieties grow best where you live and whether there are any that are native to your region.
With so many options, it’s hard to cover all the best cultivars, but here are some lists to get you started.
There are hundreds of cultivars of salvia to choose from. Most come in shades of blue, red, pink, and purple, but you can also find yellow- and white-flowering varieties.
- Salvia officinalis ‘Berggarten’– This is a cultivar of common garden sage with strongly flavored leaves that are some of the best for cooking with. Leaves are soft and silvery, and plants are hardy to zone 5.
- ‘Tricolor’– Another cultivar of garden sage, leaves are green on the inside and marbled with white, pink, and purple around the edges. Hardy in zones 5-10, but may need extra winter protection in zone 5.
- ‘Purpurascens’– A favorite with cooks, this variety has a unique flavor as well as an ornamental appearance. Leaves are purple when young and mature to an attractive silvery-green. Hardy in zones 5-10.
- ‘Aurea’ or ‘Icterina’– These are both varieties of golden sage. Leaves are light green and golden around the edges with a tasty flavor as well. Hardy in zones 6-10. Grow as an annual zone 5 and below.
- Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans)– This is a fabulous variety to try at least once in your garden. The leaves have a sweet, pineapple fragrance, and the bright red flowers are edible as well. Only a perennial in zones 8-10, pineapple sage is most often grown as an annual.
- Salvia x sylvestris ‘Mainacht’– This cultivar has deep blue flowers and blooms prolifically from May to June. Drought resistant and hardy in zones 4-8.
When choosing a variety of sage, make sure you find out whether that particular plant is a perennial or annual in your region. There are many varieties hardy to zone 4 but others that are only perennial in zone 8 and above.
- S. x sylvestris ‘Snow Hill’– This is a more rarely found white-flowering sage that is also compact, growing only 1-1.5 feet tall. Plants bloom from May-June and will bloom again if cut back. Hardy in zones 4-8.
- S. coccinea ‘Summer Jewel Red’– Also known as scarlet or Texas sage, this salvia blooms with bright red flowers that are a magnet for hummingbirds. It has a very long bloom season- late spring to early fall. Grown as an annual in most zones, hardy in zones 8-10.
- S. koyamae (Japanese yellow sage)– It’s rare to find a yellow-flowering sage, but this variety from Japan blooms with creamy yellow flowers. Unlike many other varieties, S. koyamae prefers part shade. It grows 1-3 feet tall and is hardy in zones 6-10.
- S. nemorosa ‘Ostfriesland’– This is a pretty purple-stemmed cultivar that blooms with violet flowers throughout the summer. Hardy in zones 4-8.
- S. x jamensis ‘Sierra San Antonio’– This is an extremely drought tolerant cultivar that blooms profusely with creamy peach and yellow flowers. A good choice for especially dry regions and hardy in zones 7-10.
- ‘Love and Wishes’– This is a hybrid variety with one of the longest blooming times for a salvia, usually from spring all the way to fall. Flowers are a rich red-purple and bloom on burgundy colored stems. Grows 3-4 feet tall and does not require deadheading. Hardy to zone 9 and grown as an annual in colder climates.
Some salvias form a more shrub-like plant and develop woody stems as they get older. It’s a good idea to learn about the growth habit of varieties you’re interested in so that you know what to expect.
How to Grow Salvia Plant
Salvias can be started several ways including by seed, cuttings, and division. You’ll have the most choice for variety if you buy seeds, but picking up plants from your local nursery or garden center is the most convenient.
Growing from Seed
Seeds are best started indoors about 6-8 weeks before you plan to plant outside. Some varieties, especially perennial salvias, can be started by seed directly in your garden.
Plant the seeds according to the instructions on the back of the seed packet. Some seeds, like those of culinary sage, will need to be covered with soil, while other varieties need light to germinate.
Water your seeds and soil thoroughly and place in a warm place to germinate. You can cover your seed trays with a plastic dome to help keep in moisture.
Once seeds start sprouting, remove the plastic domes if you have them on, and place the trays under grow lights. Keep your seedlings watered by watering the soil- not the leaves- when it’s almost dry. Run a fan a few times a day to give your plants some air circulation.
Salvias are fairly easy to start from seed, but should be started indoors 6-8 weeks ahead of time for the best results. Certain varieties can also be directly sown in your garden.
About a week before planting, harden off your salvia seedlings by taking them outside during the day and back in at night.
Growing from Cuttings
To grow salvia by cuttings, you’ll need to have access to an established salvia plant that you want to grow copies of in your garden. This method is best for perennial varieties, since you can’t take cuttings until the plants are growing in the spring.
However, you can take cuttings from an annual (or perennial) sage in the fall and grow it inside over the winter.
To take cuttings, use sharp and sanitized garden clippers to snip off non-flowering stems that are about 3-4 inches long. Take off the bottom few leaves from each cutting and trim the stems right below a node.
Stick the cut ends of the cuttings into pots filled with moist potting soil or compost. Covering the pots with a plastic bag can help to keep them from drying out.
Place the pots with your cuttings in a cool location that gets some light but not scorching or direct sunlight. After about three weeks, you can transplant your cuttings to larger pots and let them grow until it’s time to plant.
Ideal Growing Conditions
The best planting conditions for your salvia plant will depend on variety, but most do best in areas that get full sun. Some varieties, especially those with variegated leaves, will also do well in part shade.
Because they grow in dry soils in their native habitats, most salvias need well-drained soil and may not do as well in heavy, clay soils.
Many sage plants will adapt to poor soils, but mixing some compost into your soil prior to planting will give your transplants nutrients to feed on. Compost and other organic material can also help to improve drainage.
Salvias look great when planted in groups of at least three, but make sure you space them properly to keep plants healthy. Spacing depends on variety and runs anywhere from 1-3 feet apart.
Compact salvia varieties make good plants for a container garden. Just make sure your containers have drainage holes in the bottom.
Once you have your planting location ready, you can start digging holes for your plants that are about twice as wide as the root balls and just as deep.
Gently tip plants out of their containers and set each one in its hole. If the plant looks root bound, loosen the roots with your hands before planting.
Salvias can be planted out in your garden after all danger of frost has passed. Work the soil where you want to plant first to get rid of weeds and rocks and to break up any clumps of dirt.
Fill in around each plant with the soil you took out and firm it gently with your hands. Water your new plants thoroughly after planting.
Caring for Salvias
Salvias are extremely easy to care for.
Once established, most varieties are drought tolerant, but you’ll want to water your new transplants regularly until they build up a root system.
You can add a light layer of mulch around your plants to keep weeds down, but keep in mind that many varieties don’t like wet feet. Mulch also attracts slugs that will feed on young plants.
There’s no need to fertilize your salvia plants during the growing season. You can, however, apply a fresh layer of compost around your plants every spring.
Deadheading regularly will keep plants blooming for longer. Towards the end of the season you can leave the flower heads on, since some birds will enjoy eating the seeds.
Certain birds like to feed on the seeds of salvia and will appreciate it if you leave the flowerheads on at the end of the season so that they can develop seeds.
Many perennial salvias can be cut back to a few inches from the ground in late fall after a killing frost. You can also give most sage plants a lighter prune in spring to encourage bushier growth.
If you’re growing a perennial variety of salvia plant, you’ll need to divide it every few years. This keeps plants healthy and vigorous and also gives you free plants.
To do this, all you need to do is dig up the plant you want to divide, making a wide circle around it to get as much of the roots as possible. You can then cut through it with your shovel to make several smaller clumps.
Replant the original salvia and either plant the divisions elsewhere or share them with friends and/or family.
Pests and Diseases
Salvia plants are rarely seriously affected by any pests or diseases. Fungal diseases like powdery mildew can occasionally happen, especially in hot and humid conditions or if plants aren’t spaced properly.
Spider mites, aphids, and whiteflies can choose to attack salvias, but you’ll likely enjoy many growing seasons without any problems.
Thankfully, salvias are generally deer and rabbit resistant and don’t suffer from many pest problems. This is just another reason to grow them in your garden!
What to Plant With Salvia
Once you find your favorite salvia varieties, here are a few ideas for where to plant them and what to plant with them:
- Salvias are a great addition to sunny, perennial borders. They complement other plants that have bolder foliage or flowers while still holding their own.
- Many varieties have fragrant leaves. Plant them along pathways or somewhere you go often so that you can enjoy their scent.
- Salvias make a perfect plant for pollinator gardens, drought-resistant plantings, and naturalized areas.
- For containers, plant an upright salvia variety with low and trailing annuals like petunias, dusty miller, or ivy. There are also trailing salvias available that will spill over the edges of containers and window boxes.
- Blue or purple salvias can be paired with pink-flowering heucheras, another perennial flower. The colors are a contrast and each sets the other off.
- Eryngium, ornamental grasses, and white daisies are other good choices to pair with salvias.
Overall, there’s little not to love about salvias. You have a huge variety of choices and are sure to find one that will grow well in your garden.
Salvis are a perennial loved by many gardeners but also a good choice if you’re a beginner gardener and want a low-maintenance plant.
Jen is a master gardener, interior designer and home improvement expert. She has completed many home improvement, decor and remodeling projects with her family over the past 10 years on their 4,500 sf Victorian house. She is also a passionate farmer who keeps goats, chickens, turkeys cows and pigs on her farm, and an instructor for her community’s Organic and Sustainable Farming project.