Autumn is for salvias

There are hundreds of salvias in the wild and they vary from annuals, such as the popular chia seeds, (S. hispanica) to shrubs. There are more salvias every day now that rosemary is not rosemary any more but a sage (now Salvia rosmarinus rather than Rosmarinus officinalis). They have many uses too, and the genus is named after the medicinal usefulness of common sage (Salvia officinalis) which was used to heal (salve) so many problems and is still used in toothpastes as well as stuffing.

In nothern Europe we tend to think of salvias as blue (or mauve or white) but in the New World things are much more exciting with reds, yellow and pinks. Unfortunately for ‘us’ most of these exciting salvias are not really hardy or they flower late in summer (short day plants) so they either have to be grown in a greenhouse to protect the flowers (from cold and wet) or take the risk that the display will be cut short. The mild autumn, so far, has been kind to them, and to my nerves, wondering if they would actually flower.

Although I have had Salvia guaranitica survive outside in other gardens, it has not made it through a winter here. It is a big blue beauty and I will try again. Salvia uliginosa does survive, and actually thrives here, spreading quite fast. Salvia ‘Phyllis Fancy’ has not been risked outside over winter yet but I now have plenty of rooted cuttings so my current plants will be left out, to take their chances. I would not want to be without it and I am confident I have it safe now. It is a robust plant but a bit lanky when young and I was terrified the stems would all snap off but, having been out all summer it has shown it is made of sterner stuff and has not suffered in the recent winds. The long inflorescences are bedecked with fuzzy, inky calyces and ice white flowers. It is a chance hybrid of Salvia leucantha and furry, pink S. chiapensis and it was found at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum and named after Phyllis Norris.

I am not happy with just mentioning her and leaving it at that. After all, why was it named after her? And who is/was she? Well, thanks to the internet I have been able to fill in the gap. Gaps are not good. I know from painful personal experience.

Many years ago, when desktop magazine creation was in its infancy and I was Features Editor of the RHS magazine, we were working on a feature and it mentioned someone called Thomas Lascelles. We were on deadline and the Editor phoned up, having seen a proof and asked who he was. We didn’t know, not having written the feature, so we typed, on the screen, into the sentence, – (who is he?).

Deadline days are not the time to add to the workload and yes, you guessed it, we forgot about it.

Until we got the issues in the office and, there it was, in print. I still dream about it and wake up in a sweat. The odd thing was that, although we got letters about everything from people not liking the font of the magazine to questioning the need to publish three pages about the pollination of Nepalese viburnums, no one seemed to notice it! But it still haunts me and you, dear reader, are the first to be told.

But back to Phyllis. She was one of the first garden volunteers at the Santa Cruz Arboretum in 1976 (which was established in 1964) and she continued to work there for 40 years. She found the seedling salvia that was to bear her name. To quote from an article in a local paper in 2015 “Over the years, I think I’ve done every job there is,” but her favorite task was leading school tours’. At the time mobility issues had restricted her to the propagation house and I am not sure if she is still gardening.

In its birthplace this can become 2m high and wide and is said to tolerate a fair bit of winter frost. I think that our wet winters will make it much less likely to survive but it may sprout again from low down in spring. But even if it has to be replanted every year, like so many salvias, it grows so fast that it is effective treated as an annual.

You also have to wait for Salvia ‘Santa Barbara’ to get into its stride but it has now been blooming for months. It is a compact form of Salvia leucantha and has all the purple fuzziness that makes it so appealing. The next few days will see it ripped from its pots though because the spring bulbs must go in. I have a gravel area by the house and I think I will have to plant some youngsters there to see if I can leave them out so they are not uprooted when at their peak. That is the fun of gardening, experimenting to see how best to use plants either so they grow their best or look their best.

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5 Comments on “Autumn is for salvias”

  1. Paddy Tobin
    October 26, 2022 at 8:59 am #

    A friend in Cork left S. ‘Phyllis Fancy’ out in the garden last winter and it suffered no ill effects. Likewise, we have read of it being left outdoors at Wollerton Garden and managing perfectly well. We intent leaving one plant out this winter as we have spares in the glasshouse.

    • thebikinggardener
      November 4, 2022 at 1:59 pm #

      That is good to know – I will leave some too and se what happens

  2. Laura Bloomsbury
    October 26, 2022 at 9:48 am #

    Salvias are my favourites so I especially enjoyed this post not least because of Phyllis Fancy – I grew this lovely, late and stately plant unprotected in London for several years but moving to the East Midlands it succumbed. Other half-hardies survived last winter with just a last minute layering of straw but they are potted close to the house. My maxim now though is to focus more on the toughies

    • thebikinggardener
      November 4, 2022 at 2:00 pm #

      THere are so many variables and different places in the same garden can have different results. But your experience is helpful and gives me hope.

  3. tonytomeo
    October 27, 2022 at 3:02 am #

    Salvias were one of the few and rare fads that I sort of like. They were overly popular while we were in school in the 1980s, and for good reason, many happen to be native here, and a few more perform quite nicely in the chaparral climates. I did not like the fad at the time, but like it now that it is no longer a fad. However, some of our most common Salvias at work are not the sort that would survive here on their own. We recently got Salvia chiapensis, and got the almost too common Salvia elegans prior to that. Several cultivars of Salvia greggii were already here. Anyway, there are too many to list; but the one that I would really like to grow more of is Salvia leucantha. It looks shabby in other landscapes where so-called ‘gardeners’ shear it like a hedge, and then leave it through winter. I can cut mine back to the ground here.

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