Plant Profile: Salvias

By Craig Huegel

Reprinted from The Understory, Mar–Apr.–May 1996

Some of our most beautiful native wildflowers are mints, and one of our most widespread and commonly encountered genera are the salvias. Salvias, which also are called sages, occur throughout Florida in a wide variety of habitats. Their bright-colored tubular-shaped flowers are especially attractive and they are frequent additions to wildflower gardens. Unlike many mints, these blooms are excellent at attracting butterflies. Many salvias also are a staple of hummingbird gardens.

Non-native salvias are often encountered in garden centers, promoted for home landscape use. Some of these, like the "red sage," are planted as short-lived annuals in a wide variety of settings. Others, like Mexican sage, are perennials of the arid Southwest and frequently act as perennials in Florida if planted in a well-drained sunny location.

Photo © Shirley Denton

Lyre-leaved sage (Salvia lyrata). This is a common wildflower found throughout Florida in moist to average sites. It also is adaptable to the amount of sun it needs and may occur in fairly shady locations or in full sun. During most of the year, it occurs as a basal rosette of coarse, pungently fragrant leaves. These leaves are toothed and often the area of the leaf nearest the stem is purple. A flower stalk arises from the center of this rosette and eventually reaches about two feet in height. Flowering can occur in any month, but is most common in spring. The flowers are light lavender in color. Each plant produces about 12 flowers on its single stalk. Lyre-leaved sage is very visible while in bloom, but seems to quickly disappear afterwards.

Blue sage (Salvia azureus). This salvia (pictured at right) is encountered only in dry sandy uplands in north and central Florida. Besides requiring ample drainage, it seems also to need sunny exposures. Blue sage has no basal leaves and tends to be rather weak-stemmed and sprawling. Leaves along the stem are small and linear. Although it is not much of a foliage plant, the flowers more than make up for it. Few blooms in nature can match the pure sky blue color of this salvia. Flowering begins in late summer and may occur into early winter. Each flower stalk produces a procession of blooms over several weeks, and each plant may produce dozens of blooms before it is finished.

Florida Key sage (Salvia riparia). This salvia is frequently overlooked because it occurs in thick, shady locations and its flowers are fairly small. Its distribution is confined to central Florida. Leaves are opposite up the stem, diamond-shaped, and deeply toothed. Flower stalks, one per plant, are produced from spring through fall, but most flowering occurs in summer. The flowers are tiny (less than ¼ inch) and purplish-blue in color. Florida Key sage is an interesting wildflower for partly shady locations, but its small blooms restrict its value to most landscape settings.

Red (tropical) sage (Salvia coccinea). Without question, red salvia is the most commonly planted species of its genus, and one of the most frequently used of all our native wildflowers. It has great usefulness in butterfly and hummingbird gardening, where its bright red blooms produce abundant nectar. Its adaptability to growing sites permits it to thrive in full sun to partial shade, to exist in areas that receive salt spray, or to persist with a minimum of soil moisture. In fact, the only site condition that it can't cope with is extreme moisture. Red salvia will also die at temperatures just below freezing but populations persist because each plant produces copious amounts of seed that will grow new plants each spring. Found throughout Florida and much of the Gulf coast, it is most commonly encountered on back dunes near the beach, or in disturbed areas just about anywhere. In areas of its range where freezes do not occur, red salvia may grow many feet tall and be almost shrub-like. As a landscape plant, it flowers best when pruned to maintain it between two and three feet tall.

Published on  08.06.2012