Glorious Salvias

I can think of no better water-wise plant than salvia for
California gardeners. It is beautiful,
tough, and hummingbirds love it. There
are so many varieties to choose from that I will only hit the highlights
here. However, if you find salvia as
irresistible as I do, you’ll want to pick up Betsy Clebsch’s The New Book of
from Timber Press. It’s
been newly revised and updated, and it includes over 150 species. Clebsch is such a good writer that you’ll
find yourself reading it from beginning to end like a novel.

 Some of the
more commonly-available varieties of salvia include:

clevelandii, or Cleveland sage
: Native to southern California, this plant grows into a lovely mounding
shrub about five feet wide and three to five feet tall. It produces whorls of lavender flowers that
bloom in summer. This is a great salvia
for hillsides, where it can withstand strong winds and deer. 

mexicana “Limelight” or Mexican sage
: Don’t confuse this plant with S. leucantha, or Mexican bush sage, a
widely-grown salvia with narrow leaves and velvety purple and white flower
spikes. Mexican sage has a more upright
habit and its leaves are heart-shaped. I particularly like the “Limelight” cultivars because the purple-blue
flowers emerge from chartreuse calyces. This makes it a striking cut flower even when the blue blossoms
themselves have dropped from the plant. It can grow over eight feet tall and three to four feet wide.

spathacea, also called crimson sage, pitcher sage, or hummingbird sage
: This is another California native, and you
might have to visit a native plant nursery to find it, but you’ll be glad you
did. Clebsch describes the flowers as
“beetroot-purple,” and the calyces themselves are a dark red, which makes the
plant quite ornamental even when it is not in bloom. It is a low-growing plant, reaching up to three feet at the most,
and it puts out creeping rhizomes to form a dense mat.

confertiflora (no common name): 
salvia is getting more popular and easy to find each season, for good reason—it
produces velvety spikes of deep red flowers similar to those of Mexican bush
sage. The plant blooms in autumn and
stands 4-6 feet tall, spreading to about the same width. 

 Most salvia
prefer poor soil and need water only in the first year to get established. Consider planting several salvia in a group,
preferably in a sunny spot farther away from the house, where you would not
want to bother with watering anyway. Let them form a thicket of sorts, and enjoy the bright color
combinations. Insects and hummingbirds
will come there to feed, and other small birds will seek shelter and forage for