A sage gardener embraces the unknown

Posted July 24, 2009, at 7:30 p.m.

Sometimes, gardening is a series of happy accidents.

How many times have you purchased a plant, not knowing what to expect? You take it home, dig a hole and plant it, uncertain as to what it might look like come August.

Me, too. Many, many times.

I did that a number of years ago on a visit to Everlasting Farm in Bangor. Actually, I do that pretty much every year when I visit Gail and Michael Zuck’s place on Essex Street, but I am talking about a good many years back when I decided I needed greater variety for my annual flowers, most of which end up in half whiskey barrels and large pots on the deck.

I remember spotting pots from a particular plant family that had never held much interest for me, probably because I only ever saw the bedding varieties that I felt were unattractive at best.

The flower color of some intrigued me, while the description of another captured my interest.

So I bought a slew of salvia.

I couldn’t imagine I would be impressed. I mean, it was salvia, more commonly known as sage. Most of the salvia I’d seen in the past was short, stocky and stiff with flowers of either red or white.

Boring.

My new salvia picks quickly started to grow and blossom, delighting me with the intense color. By summer’s end, when the plants had reached their peak, I was hooked.

So were the bees, butterflies and hummingbirds, all of which delight in salvia blossoms.

More than 700 species of salvia exist, the largest genus in the mint family. From herbs such as garden sage, Salvia officinalis, to ornamental varieties to shrubs, salvias are native in many parts of the world: Europe to North, Central and South America to Africa. Some varieties are found only in specific regions, like Death Valley sage, S. funerea, which grows in some of the dry canyons that border Death Valley. One variety, S. columbariae, is probably better known in the U.S. than almost any other sage; its common name is chia and its seed is used to grow “Chia Pets.”

This year I probably have more varieties of salvia than ever before, but I know the bees, butterflies and hummingbirds appreciate my lack of willpower.

For fragrant salvias, I have pineapple sage, S. rutilans, and honeydew sage, with their narrow scarlet flowers. When their leaves are rubbed, the oils released smell like their respective fruit. Pineapple is my favorite, for nothing beats the smell in the warm August sunshine or the cool of late September. It’s cool when it’s warm and warm when it’s cool.

One of my two “new” salvias for the year is S. miniata, or Belize sage. Miniata, which means red, has larger tubular flowers atop two-toned leaves that are smooth, a unique feature among the usually hairy or fuzzy sages. The two-toned leaves are a brown-green with subtle maroon-brown splotches around the leaf edges. It can grow up to 36 inches in height.

The other new tryout is S. macellaria, shorter by a foot or more but adding nice color dimension to some of my potted arrangements with its coral-hued blossoms.

I have two varieties of S. greggii, or autumn sage. One is the more petite ‘Nuevo Leon,’ a pansy blue-flowered plant that is not seeming to want to be much more than 18 inches tall. The other is the slightly taller ‘Maraschino Cherry’ with its cherry-colored flowers that blossom with abandon.

Another standard is S. microphylla ‘Hot Lips.’ This curious salvia has two-toned flowers, with white on top and a hot pink lower “lip” on the blossom.

Then there are the blues, which are my favorite salvia colors.

This year, I have a couple of plants of S. patens, or Gentian sage, with its gentian blue flowers. Think intense sky blue and you have gentian. Set that shade against leaves that are spring green and you can put on quite a show for the summer.

Dearest to my heart, however, is the salvia that I almost overlooked during that trip to Everlasting Farm. It didn’t look so spectacular in its wee pot and I couldn’t imagine how it could turn into much in a couple of months. But I liked the description and eventually found it gave better than even words could describe.

Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’ is one of the most astonishing salvias you can plant. By season’s end, my whiskey barrel plantings tower over my head and look like crazy fireworks as the spikes of flowers grow and grow, curling and twisting under their own weight.

The flowers — a rich indigo blue — are a haven for pollinators and keep on giving until a hard frost hits. Even the calyxes that hold the flowers are purplish, which makes it look like it is blooming the length of the entire spike when the blossoms have dropped.

I can’t imagine my yard without it now.

Only as I was reading up on salvias did I discover where my dear ‘Indigo Spires’ originated.

About 40 years ago, a horticulturist at Huntington Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif., came across the plant, thought to be a bee-pollinated cross between two Mexican sages. The result was a sterile hybrid, which means it can be propagated only through cuttings.

Another happy accident that was meant to be.

jpineo@bangordailynews.net

www.janinepineo.com

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