Perennial salvias (also known as “sage”) are heat-loving, deer-resistant plants that thrive from midsummer through fall. The bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds can’t resist them! Learn how to grow, cut back, and care for salvias.
Part of the mint family (Lamiaceae), salvias provide colorful spikes of densely packed flowers with tubular blossoms atop square stems and velvety leaves. Their flowers come in a range of colors, including purple, blue, red, pink, and white.
“Salvia” and “sage” are often used interchangeably; we tend to use “salvia” for the ornamental plant and “sage” for the culinary herb. However, garden sage has a few attractive ornamental varieties itself.
Hummingbirds and butterflies love salvias’ tubular flowers, and they’re adored by bees, too, so plant them if you wish to attract these pretty pollinators!
Fortunately, salvia does not tend to attract deer or rabbits. Their leaves’ distinctive, pungent odor acts as a repellent to garden pests.
Salvias are heat- and drought-tolerant, making them survivors in the summer garden. They grow 18 inches to 5 feet tall, depending on the variety. Salvias of all types can be grown in containers, too.
Take care when choosing salvias because not all plants are hardy in all regions; some are best treated as annuals, but many perennial varieties are also available.
All salvias do best in full sun (6-8 hours of sunlight per day) and well-drained soil. Many varieties (typically those with light-colored flowers) will also do well in part-shade, but flowering will be reduced.
When to Plant Salvia
Direct-sow salvia seed outdoors after all danger of frost has passed in the spring. See local frost dates.
How to Plant Salvia
Loosen the soil to a depth of 12 inches, removing any large stones or roots. Mix in a 3-inch layer of compost to provide nutrients.
If planting in a container, add some grit to the compost to improve drainage and feed in spring. Plants grown in garden soil don’t need feeding.
Dig a hole twice the diameter of the container the plant is in.
Remove the plant from its container and place it in the hole so the top of the root ball is level with the soil surface.
Space plants 1 to 3 feet apart, depending on the variety.
Carefully fill in around the plant and firm the soil gently.
Add a 2-inch layer of mulch around the plant to retain moisture and control weeds.
Water plants during the summer if rainfall is less than 1 inch per week. Salvia does not like excessive summer irrigation.
Feed container plants in the spring. Plants grown in a garden bed really don’t need feeding during the season.
To encourage continuous blooms throughout the season, deadhead spent flowers periodically.
At the end of the season, leave flowers on plants to encourage reseeding (and to feed the birds).
Some develop woody lower stems with age; feel free to prune this.
After the first killing frost, cut stems back to 1 or 2 inches above the soil line.
Divide perennial salvias every few years. The best time to divide is in early spring before new growth begins. Just lift, divide into clumps, and replant.
Every spring, apply a new thick layer of compost and mulch again.
For the adventurous gardener, salvia cuttings can be taken in the spring or early fall.
Some salvias often self-propagate, so you might find seedlings you can use in other parts of your landscape!
Before flower buds have developed, take cuttings (remove stems) from vegetative (non-flowering) branches that are about 3 to 5 inches long. Remove the lower leaves and trim each cutting just below a node (a node is where a leaf emerges from a stem).
Insert cuttings into a pot of prewatered compost. Cover the pot with a clear plastic bag—try to avoid the bag touching the foliage.
Place cuttings in a spot with indirect light. After three weeks, cuttings should be ready to pot on.
Part of the mint family (Lamiaceae), the genus Salvia includes about 960 species; many of the tender perennials are grown as annuals in cold regions. Depending on the variety, plants can be 18 inches to 5 feet tall, but many are suitable for containers, too.
These common salvias are usually grown as annuals; they may be grown as perennials in warmer regions:
Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans): Mexico/Guatemala native; bright red, edible flowers in late summer; leaves emit a fruity fragrance when crushed; up to 4 feet tall; hardy in Zones 8 and up
Scarlet or Texas sage (S. coccinea): bright red flowers; hardy in Zones 9 and higher; 1 to 3 feet tall
Scarlet bedding sage (S. splendens): Brazilian native; flowers can be red, purple, orange, lavender, yellow, or white; heart-shaped leaves; up to 2 feet tall
These salvias are usually grown as perennials:
Autumn sage (S. greggii): blooms from spring to frost in a rainbow of colors; disease-free and drought-tolerant; 2- to 3-foot-tall mounding form
Hybrid sage (S. x superba): ideal for cold areas; rosy purple blooms in late spring to early summer; rebloom to fall if faded flowers are cut back; 1 to 2 feet tall; ‘Rose Queen’ bears pink flowers
Pitcher sage (S. azurea var. grandiflora), aka “blue sage”: aromatic foliage; large, sky-blue flowers in late fall; 3- to 5-foot clumping form
Peruvian sage (S. discolor): native to Peru; leaves are gray-green on the top, with white undersides; dark purple flowers; spreading, floppy form; 1 to 3 feet tall
Wit and Wisdom
Ancient Romans believed that salvia stimulated the brain and memory; they also used it to clean their teeth.
The name Salvia comes from the Latin word salvere, which means “to heal.” Salvia has been used for its herbal and medicinal qualities since ancient times.
The common kitchen herb sage—Salvia officinalis—is a relative of the many ornamental species and has a few attractive ornamental varieties itself.
Pests and diseases are rarely an issue for salvia growers. Here are possible issues: