Perennial salvias are the colorful stars of the garden

    Baptisia may be my new plant favorite, but right now our garden owes its color to perennial salvias. These colorful relatives of culinary sage come in a variety of sizes and colors to fit every garden.
    Breeders started working with salvias after World War II, and many of the cultivars in our well-established garden are older ones. As a rule of thumb, plants with the word nemorosa in their Latin names are stiffly upright, and so are their flower stems. ‘Superba’ types like ‘Maynight’ have a looser growing habit and larger flowers on their spikes.
    All of the salvia are huge this year and filled with blossoms, probably because we’ve had abundant moisture. Along the front path, purple ‘Maynight’ covers the bare canes of the pink ‘Carefree’ roses standing behind them. Farther down the bed, the dark stems and purple spires of ‘Cardonna’ tower over the flat-top yellow yarrow blooms.
    The front border repeats ‘Cardonna,’ and adds the spikes of the lighter blue-purple ‘East Friesland’ and white ‘Snowhill.’ In the back yard ‘pastel Pink Damask’ mixes with the purple chive flowers, and tiny 6-inch tall “Marcus’ fills in on the corners of the beds.
    Two new salvias were added to our garden last year. ‘Crystal Blue’ has pastel blue blossoms. The light colored flowers don’t make much of an impact, but if I cut the spent spikes as they fade, new ones are produced so quickly it’s always in flower.
    ‘Azure Snow’ has been a huge surprise. I purchased one last summer and stuck it in a bed undergoing renovation. It’s now a giant, almost 3 feet tall and solidly upright despite the wild weather last week. The mixed white and blue on the flowers make less impact than the darker purple or rose blooms on many salvias, but its size and sturdy habit make it a winner.
    Salvias can provide several flushes of flowers if they are cut back as soon as they begin to fade. I just whack off the top of the plants leaving about one-third of the growth. In a couple of weeks, the display is back on.
    Like all perennials, salvias will need to be divided. They sometimes fall to pieces when lifted, and the woody roots don’t look like they can survive, but they easily reestablish, especially if they’re divided early in spring.
    Perennial salvias come in shades of pink, rose, blue, purple and white, and newer introductions feature larger flowers. Selections like ‘Wild Thing’ and ‘Cherry Queen’ with cherry red flowers are less hardy in our zone, and while they will survive mild winters, don’t be surprised to lose them after just a few years.
    Perennial salvias are hardy to at least zone 5 and unattractive to rabbits, deer and most insect pests. Culinary sage is also hardy, so it’s safe to leave in the ground if the soil is well-draining.     
    Some of the large annual salvias like ‘Black and Blue’ and ‘Skyblue’ are spectacular potted plants that form underground tubers. I’ve had good success digging out the tubers after a light frost and storing them with my canna tubers and amaryllis bulbs. I divide the tubers and restart the plants in late February or March so I have large plants to put out in the garden.

 

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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