Salutations to Salvia

A member of the mint family, sage (Salvia) adds texture, flowers and sometimes even fragrance to the garden.

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With over 900 species and even more hybrids, it's easy to fall in love with salvia. Salvia expert Betsy Clebsch discuss what makes these flowers so extraordinary.

Clebsch refers to her Northern California garden, high in the Santa Cruz mountains, as her laboratory. For 30 years, her interest in plant study has centered around these mystical, medicinal and medieval salvias. In fact, she has been so instrumental in the world of salvias that one--Salvia clevelandii 'Betsy Clebsch'--has been named in her honor. The cultivar has varying color flowers from bluish lavender to everything in between and even bi-colored petals.

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Loosely translated from its Latin origin, salvia means to heal. "Salvias have been reputed to cure everything from a snakebite to a broken heart. Now that's pretty big business," she says. Salvias are also found in the wild on every continent except Australia and some of its surrounding islands. Like all mints, salvias have leaves directly opposite one another on the stem. There's a lot of diversity within the genus. Some plants have tiny leaves, others feature large foliage like the one in the main image above.

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Some salvia have small, demure petals.

Others have wonderfully wide flowers. Small, tall, incredible and edible, after decades of growing salvias, the sheer variety within the genus still astounds Clebsch.

"This plant has a habit like squash. I don't know of any other salvia that I've grown that sends out these leafy stems," she says. Today this salvia hasn't been identified botanically. So while the botanists determine the species, Clebsch's research helps define what the plant needs to thrive.

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Established by trial and error, Clebsch didn't know this salvia from Mexico would mound until a close shave taught the plant to behave. "It shows how all salvias respond well to cutting back," say Clebsch. "And that's a very important lesson to gardeners."

Another important lesson is the importance of deadheading. Clebsch just uses her hands to deadhead because it's fast, easy and very efficient. "You have to have nerve to do it, but if you take this flowering stem out, that will actually trigger more flower production from all of the rest of the plant," says Clebsch.

Wire can also help keep the salvia blooming. Simple chicken-wire baskets provide protection from the root-eating gophers. Clebsch warns that the fight is continual. "The gopher will jump over the top of the basket and get to the plant, but usually they attack it from the roots." Wire baskets also make a good plant marker because when the mercury drops so will many salvias.

"When cool and cold weather comes along, this plant dies back to the ground, and then doesn't emerge until late spring," says Clebsch. "So you want to be sure you mark where it is in the garden, or else you'll dig it up unintentionally."

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Just look at this easy-to-grow Salvia nemorosa from northern Europe. According to Clebsch, S. nemorosa has been growing in gardens for at least 200 years. It makes a great addition to the garden for obvious reasons and it's also quite hardy. It can take a freeze and keep on blooming.

For all the different types of looks salvia has, one thing remains the same; the plants are simply enchanting. In the bat of an eye, salvias will bring salvation to any garden, along with lots of hummingbirds it you're lucky.

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