The Salvia family should be featured in your Southern garden

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 29, 2000

Arguably the best and most diverse collection of garden plants belong to the genus Salvia. This genus encompasses over 900 species. Many are spectacular additions to southern gardens. Salvias belong to the lamiaceae family or more commonly known as the mint family.

Perhaps no other genus can boast such a wide variety of textures, growth habits and colors. Salvias have the richest of reds and the most electric of blues. However, any color in a rainbow may be found in this remarkable genus.

Before the eighteenth century, salvia was known to be a useful medicine. Leaves from common sage (Salvia officinalis), presently known as the cooking sage, and Greek sage (Salvia fruticosa) were used to treat wounds in ancient Greece and Rome.

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Surviving documentation describing the medicinal use of sage includes works by Theophrastus (c372-287BC) and Pliny the Elder (23-79AD). Pliny was first to use the Latin name Salvia, originating the verb salvere, meaning to heal.

The Sicilian Dioscorides was the author of De Materia Medica in about 64AD. This work included a publication of more than 500 medicinal herbs and their uses. This became the main source of information on the subject in Europe, until Elizabethan times.

In 995AD, Benedictine monk Aelfric assembled a list of more than 200 trees and shrubs, in his Colloquy (Nominum Herbarum). Sage was included in his list of plants for cloister gardens at the ideal monastery.

John Gerard authored The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes in 1597. His famous British herbal listed nine different salvias. Gerard wrote ‘Sage is singularly good for the head and brain, it quickeneth the senses and memory, strengtheneth the sinews, restoreth health to those that have the palsy, and taketh away shakey trembling of the members.’

By 1743, renowned British horticulturist and botanist Philip Miller (1691-1771) wrote the Gardeners’ and Florists’ Dictionary. Seven editions followed describing new Salvia introductions previously unknown in Europe that were being brought in from the New World, Africa and the Far East. Eventually Miller claimed to introduce 32 different species.

In 1763, Carl Linneaus was responsible for naming Salvia lyrata, a hardy herbaceous perennial known as lyre-leaf sage or cancer weed, due to claims of therapeutic uses. Lyre-leaf sage is a lovely native to the Miss-Lou.

Seed catalogues in the nineteenth century began to list species that are important garden plants of today. E.G. Henderson and Sons was a London company that listed nine species in 1867 including Salvia coccinea, known today as Scarlet sage or Texas sage, although it is also available in white, pink and coral forms. Scarlet sage has naturalized in areas of Mississippi and Louisiana. Salvia splendens ( modern varieties include ‘Red Hot Sally’) and Salvia farinacea (modern varieties include ‘Victoria Blue’) were also among his list.

By 1925, Thomas Carlile of the Loddon Gardens at Twyford, Buckinghamshire, offered several salvias. Salvia uliginosa, known today as the sky blue flowered &uot;bog sage&uot; was one species available.

The shrubby perennial Salvia greggii was another species listed in Carlile’s catalog and one that is well suited for southern climates. Today it is known as autumn sage, although it blooms throughout summer until a hard frost. Salvia greggii is available today in many colors including red, coral, white, purple and pink.

In the 1970’s a salvia seedling was discovered at the Huntington Botanical Gardens in California, by horticulturist John MacGregor. The plant became known as Salvia ‘Indigo Spires’ and described as a &uot;chance seedling&uot; from Salvia longispicata and Salvia farinacea ,since it was found growing near them in the garden. ‘Indigo Spires’ produces deep blue-violet flowers from mid spring until frost. Growing to a height of 4 ft., with a spread as wide, ‘Indigo Spires’ should grace every southern garden where there is ample space. This herbaceous perennial is an absolute knock-out!

Many other salvias will put on stellar performances in the Miss-Lou. Each species and variety is accompanied with a fascinating history. In addition, many thrive during our dry, hot, and humid months. Growing in a variety of light conditions, salvias also attract a variety of insect pollinators and hummingbirds.

Salvias are a striking addition to any Miss-Lou garden. Discover these extraordinary plants if you haven’t already. With more species being introduced to the U.S. each year, you’ll probably wonder how you ever got along without them.

Gardening Miss-Lou Style is a weekly column written by Traci Maier of Natchez. She can be reached at 445-5181 or by e-mail at