Notes on Growing Salvias in Central North Carolina

by Will Cook

Salvia is one of the largest genera of plants, with roughly 900 species. For the past couple of years I've tried growing many species, concentrating on American species that attract hummingbirds or butterflies, smell good, or have interesting ethnobotanical stories. Below are personal notes on each of the species I've tried to grow. The listings include the minimum USDA winter hardiness zone; whether the species does best in full sun, semi-shade (SS), or shade; whether it does best in dry, mesic, or moist conditions; normal height at maturity; normal flower color; flowering seasons (sp/su/fa/wi); and origin. All of the species below were bought locally (see sources at end), except for S. lyrata, which is a common native lawn weed, and S. urticifolia, which I grew from cuttings made in the wild in Granville County. These are notes I made on my experiences in Chapel Hill, NC. (I am currently living in Durham NC and not maintaining this garden.) Chapel Hill is near the border of USDA hardiness zones 7a and 7b. The English names listed are a compilation of those used by various books, catalogs, Richard Dufresne, and John Kartesz, with a couple of my own creation (my favorite name listed first). There's a list of resources at the bottom of this page.

Salvia argentea - Silver Sage. Nice fuzzy silvery leaves, like Stachys byzantina. Hardy (survives the winter), but short-lived - mine died after 2 growing seasons.
Zone 5 Sun Dry 2' white sp/su Southern Europe

Salvia azurea var. azurea - Azure Sage. Native perennial with stunning blue flowers, narrow leaves, and a sprawling habit.
Zone 5 Sun Mesic 3' blue fa Southeastern U.S.

Salvia azurea var. grandiflora - Prairie Sage. Reliable perennial with true blue flowers, narrow leaves, and a sprawling habit.
Zone 5 Sun Mesic 3' blue fa Central U.S.

Salvia blepharophylla - Eyelash-leaved Sage. Very nice, but not hardy.
Zone 8 SS/Sh Mesic 2' red sp/su/fa Mexico

Salvia cacaliaefolia - Guatemalan Blue Vine Sage. Sprawling, but not vine-like, with true blue flowers and interesting foliage. Did not survive winter 2000-1.
Zone 8 SS/Sh Mesic 2' blue su/fa Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras

Salvia chamaedryoides - Germander Sage, Blue Oak Sage. Hardy evergreen subshrub with gray leaves and blue flowers.
Zone 7 Sun Dry 1' blue sp/fa Mexico

Salvia chamelaeagnea - African Blue Sage. Fragrant leaves, nice pale blue and white flowers. Not hardy.
Zone 9? Sun/SS Dry 2' blue su/fa South Africa

Salvia chiapensis - Chiapas Sage. Nice glossy leaves. Not hardy.
Zone 10 SS/Sh Mesic 2' fuchsia su/fa/wi Mexico

Salvia chionantha - Poor performer; probably requires Mediterranean climate. Survived winter 2001-2, but didn't do much. Did not bloom.
Zone 7? Sun Dry 6" ? ? Turkey

Salvia chionophylla - Snowflake Sage. This plant has a lax habit, making it useful for a hanging basket or evergreen groundcover. Stems are covered with small pale gray-green leaves (like snowflakes), which cascade down and produce small violet-blue flowers in summer. Grown for its attractive foliage (similar to S. chamaedryoides) and lax habit instead of its inconspicuous flowers.
Zone 7 Sun Dry 6" blue su Mexico

Salvia clevelandii - Fragrant Sage. Worth growing for its extremely fragrant leaves, which can be smelled from far away. Great plant, but not hardy - works only as an annual here.
Zone 8 Sun Dry 3' purple su California

Salvia coahuilensis - Coahuila Sage. Similar to S. muelleri, like a miniature S. greggii with reddish-purple flowers. Evergreen, marginally hardy.
Zone 7 Sun Dry 1' purple su/fa Mexico

Salvia coccinea - Scarlet Sage, Tropical Sage, Blood Sage. Blooms late into the fall. Killed below 20F, but usually a few seedlings come up the next year. The best cultivar may be the compact 'Lady in Red'. Pink and white cultivars available.
Zone 9 Sun/SS Mesic 2' red sp/su/fa Brazil

Salvia confertiflora - Sabra Spike Sage, Harvest Sage. Small red flowers in late fall. Not hardy.
Zone 9 SS Mesic 5' red fa Brazil

Salvia darcyi - Galeana Red Sage. Hardy 2-3' perennial with bright red blooms spring to fall. Fairly new introduction, but one of the best. Name still not certain - may be S. schaffneri and was introduced as S. oresbia. Quite hardy here.
Zone 7 Sun Mesic 2' red su/fa Mexico

Salvia discolor - Andean Silver-leaf Sage. Striking lax plant with dark green glossy leaves above with white-hairy undersides, and nearly black corollas emerging from white-hairy calyces. Not hardy.
Zone 10 SS/Sh Mesic 3' purple-black su/fa Peru

Salvia divinorum - Diviner's Sage. Attractive large pale-veined leaves, interesting story (the hallucinogenic leaves are used for divination by the Mazatec in Oaxaca), and beautiful white flowers in winter (greenhouse required). Not hardy.
Zone 10 Shade Moist 4' white wi Mexico

Salvia dorisiana - Fruit-scented Sage. Not hardy and blooms in winter, but worth growing as an annual for its amazing scent.
Zone 9 SS/Shade Moist 3' pink wi Honduras

Salvia elegans - Pineapple Sage. One of the best hummingbird plants, with the added bonus of pineapple-scented leaves. The usual cultivar 'Scarlet Pineapple' has scarlet blooms in October-December, after Ruby-throated Hummers leave, but it did attract a Rufous Hummingbird in Chapel Hill and the only NC record of Anna's Hummingbird in Charlotte. The compact cultivar 'Honey Melon' starts blooming in mid-July, but has much smaller flowers. Marginally hardy here in zone 7 - in my experience, about 1 in 4 plants survive the winter. Well worth growing as an annual.
Zone 7b Sun/Semi-shade Mesic 1-3' red su/fa Mexico

Salvia farinacea - Mealycup Sage. Marginally hardy, can reseed. Good for butterflies. Commonly used as a bedding plant.
Zone 7 Sun/SS Mesic 2' blue sp/su/fa Texas/Mexico

Salvia fulgens - Cardinal Sage. Cardinal-red flowers; late bloomer. Not hardy.
Zone 9 Sun Mesic 4' red fa/wi Mexico

Salvia glechomaefolia - Ground-Ivy Sage. Small flowers might be attractive to butterflies. Marginally hardy.
Zone 8 SS Mesic 6" blue su Mexico

Salvia greggii - Gregg's Sage, Texas Sage, Autumn Sage. Very hardy aromatic semi-evergreen shrub, blooms much of the year (Mar-Nov), many cultivars available. A favorite of hummers. One of the best.
Zone 7 Sun/SS Dry 3' red sp/su/fa Texas/Mexico

Salvia guaranitica - Guarani Sage, Blue Brazilian Sage. This may be the hummingbirds' absolute favorite, even though the flowers are blue, not red. Tolerates and even thrives in shade. The leaves are nicely scented, but not reminiscent of anise, in my opinion. Many cultivars available - I've had success with 'Argentine Skies' (pale blue flowers) and 'Black and Blue' (black calyces) in addition to the standard species.
Zone 6 SS/Shade Mesic 4' blue sp/su/fa SE Brazil to NE Argentina

Salvia hispanica - Chia. Large, vigorous plant with masses of small blue flowers in late fall. Does not survive frost to set seed in zone 7, but the dried leaves make a delicious tea.
Zone 9 Sun Mesic 7' blue fa Mexico/Guatemala

Salvia 'Indigo Spires' - Hybrid between S. farinacea and S. longispicata. Excellent, reliable perennial that thrives with neglect. Good for butterflies.
Zone 7 Sun/SS Mesic 4' blue su/fa

Salvia involucrata - Roseleaf Sage. Needs a lot of room. Large leaves, interesting flowers and buds, but short bloom length since it starts in late fall. The leaves don't look anything like rose leaves, but the flower buds look like rose buds.
Zone 7 SS Mesic 6' purple-red fa Mexico

Salvia iodantha - Mexican Fuchsia Sage. So far I've only grown this in a pot.
Zone ? ? ? ? fuchsia wi Mexico

Salvia x jamensis - Hybrid between S. greggii and S. microphylla, with similar qualities. Many cultivars available in a wide range of colors. The one I have is 'La Luna', with yellow flowers.
Zone 7 Sun/SS Dry 2' various sp/su/fa Mexico

Salvia jurisicii - Feathered Sage, Jurisic's Lavender Sage. Worthless in our climate. The four I set out last year died very quickly.
Zone 6 Sun Dry 1' blue-lavender su Serbia, Macedonia

Salvia koyamae - Japanese Yellow Sage. Good foliage plant, but not my favorite.
Zone 5 SS/Shade Moist 2' yellow fa Japan

Salvia leucantha - Mexican Bush Sage. Great shrub with white corollas surrounded by velvety purple calyces in fall. Barely survived last winter. The popular cultivar 'Midnight' (AKA 'All Purple') has purple flowers. Good for butterflies.
Zone 7b Sun Dry/Mesic 4' white fa Mexico

Salvia littae - Litta's Purple Sage. I've only grown this in a pot so far.
Zone 8? ? ? ? purple wi Mexico

Salvia lycioides - Canyon Sage. Gray-leaved evergreen sprawler, suitable for a rock garden. Marginally hardy - died in the harsh winter 2004-5.
Zone 7b Sun Dry 6" blue sp/fa Texas, New Mexico, Mexico

Salvia lyrata - Lyre-leaved Sage. Common native lawn weed with nice pale blue flowers in spring. Forms with colored leaves are sold as ornamentals. Very tough, as you'd expect from a weed.
Zone 5 Sun/SS Dry/Mesic SE US, from Connecticut to Texas

Salvia madrensis - Forsythia Sage. Growth habit similar to S. involucrata and S. puberula, with small yellow flowers in late fall. A vigorous shrub (dies back to the ground here) that needs lots of space. Not one of my favorites.
Zone 7 SS Mesic 6' yellow fa Mexico

Salvia melissodora - Grape-scented Sage. Wonderful grape-scented flowers might be good for butterflies. Leaves used by the Tarahumara indians for fever. I bought it from Big Bloomers, where it was labelled as S. tarahumara. Not hardy, but reseeds.
Zone 9 Sun Mesic 4' blue sp/fa Mexico

Salvia mellifera - California Black Sage. Very strong smelling leaves, good for tea. Its native habitat is xeric southwest facing slopes in full sun, but mine was thriving in our humidity. Not hardy.
Zone 9 Sun Dry 3' white sp California

Salvia mexicana - Mexican Sage. Spectacular, with large leaves and large purple flowers in late fall.
Zone 7 Sun/SS Mesic 5' purple fa Mexico

Salvia microphylla - Littleleaf Sage. Similar to S. greggii, with more lax habit and rugose (wrinkled) leaves. Many cultivars are available; my favorite is 'San Carlos Festival'. Highly recommended.
Zone 7 Sun/SS Dry/Mesic 2' pink-red sp/su/fa Mexico

Salvia microphylla var. neurepia - Fruity Littleleaf Sage. Similar to S. microphylla but with sticky fruity-scented leaves, more upright habit, and larger leaves. This is an evergreen shrub, not an herbaceous plant, and it normally does not get killed back to the ground. It got killed back during the harsh winter of 2004-5, but sprouted right back from the roots. Excellent.
Zone 7 Sun/SS Dry/Mesic 4' pink-red sp/su/fa Mexico

Salvia miniata - Belize Sage. Nice plant for a pot.
Zone 10 SS/Sh Moist 3' red su/fa Belize, Mexico

Salvia muelleri - Mueller's Sage, Royal Purple Sage. Like a miniature S. greggii with purple flowers (similar to S. coahuilensis). Evergreen, survived last winter with no damage.
Zone 7 Sun Dry 1' purple sp/su/fa Mexico

Salvia officinalis - Garden Sage. Great aromatic evergreen subshrub, though short-lived. Many cultivars available.
Zone 7 Sun Dry 2' lavender su Europe

Salvia oppositiflora - Peruvian Salmon Sage. Nice little red flowers and kerosene-scented leaves! Not hardy.
Zone 9 Sun Dry 1' red su/fa Peru

Salvia patens - Gentian Sage. Huge true blue flowers with gaping jaws. Marginally hardy.
Zone 7 SS/Shade Mesic 2' blue sp/su Mexico

Salvia puberula - Hairy Roseleaf Sage. Similar to S. involucrata, with fragrant sticky leaves. Reliably hardy.
Zone 7 SS Mesic 6' magenta fa Mexico

Salvia 'Purple Majesty' - Hybrid between S. guaranitica and S. gesneraeflora. Nice, but not as hardy as plain S. guaranitica.
Zone 8 Sun/SS Mesic 4' purple su/fa

Salvia purpurea - Mexican Purple Sage. Not hardy here in zone 7b.
Zone 9 SS Mesic 4' purple fa/wi Mexico to Honduras

Salvia regla - Mountain Sage. Large bright orange blooms in October-December on 4' tall deciduous shrub. Do not cut back in winter - leaves will resprout from buds on the stem.
Zone 7 Sun/SS Dry 4' orange-red fa Texas/Mexico

Salvia roemeriana - Cedar Sage. This compact Texas native has brilliant red tubular flowers in the spring - earlier than many other hummingbird-attracting Salvias. Reseeds itself.
Zone 7 SS Dry 1' red sp/fa Texas/Mexico

Salvia 'San Jose' - No idea what this one really is (one of several mislabelled plants at Big Bloomers). Foliage is similar to S. mexicana, but I forgot to take notes on what the flowers look like. Survived winter 2000-1. Zone 7 Sun/SS Mesic 5' ? fa

Salvia sclarea - Clary Sage. Mine died - apparently not planted in the right location. Need to try again.
Zone 5 Sun Dry 3' pale lilac/blue fa? Mediterranean region

Salvia sinaloensis - Sinaloa Sage. Wonderful little compact plant with purplish leaves and true blue butterfly-attracting flowers. Not hardy in zone 7b.
Zone 8 SS Mesic 1' blue su/fa Mexico

Salvia splendens (modern cultivars) - Red Salvia, Scarlet Sage. The most common red Salvia used for bedding (massed plantings of annuals). Many cultivars are available at any garden center and in seed catalogs. Plant tall red ones for best hummingbird results. Perennial but killed by frost, so it's treated as an annual here.
Zone 10 SS Mesic 1-2' various sp/su/fa Brazil

Salvia splendens 'Van Houttei' - Van Houtte's Sage. An early selection, close to the wild form of S. splendens. Spectacular 4'x4' plant covered with burgundy flowers all fall. Does very well in shade. Killed below 28F but very easy to propagate and keep indoors for the winter.
Zone 9 SS/Sh Mesic 4' burgundy fa Brazil

Salvia x superba 'Mainacht' - May Night Sage. Rather dull and small-flowered, but somewhat good for butterflies.
Zone 5 Sun Dry/Mesic 2' violet sp/su/fa Europe

Salvia thymoides - Thyme-leaved Sage. Looks like a good rock garden plant. Not hardy.
Zone 9 Sun Dry 6" violet su/fa Mexico

Salvia uliginosa - Bog Sage. Airy upright growth form, true blue flowers, unpleasant smelling foliage, spreads if given favorable conditions. Good for butterflies.
Zone 6 Sun Mesic/Moist 4' blue su/fa Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina

Salvia urica - Blue Bush Sage. Slightly similar to S. guaranitica, but less hardy, with smaller flowers, shorter bloom length, and unpleasantly fragrant foliage. Not one of my favorites.
Zone 9 SS Mesic 4' blue su/fa Mexico

Salvia urticifolia - Nettle-leaved Sage. This beautiful, petite native wildflower grows most often on shady roadside or sewerline banks on relatively high pH soil. Highly recommended - if you can find it.
Zone 5? SS Mesic 2' purple-blue sp SE US, from Pennsylvania to Mississippi

The essential hummingbird collection: coccinea, elegans 'Scarlet Pineapple' (the usual type), greggii, guaranitica, and splendens 'Van Houttei'


Most of these are available at Big Bloomers in Tramway, just south of Sanford. Directions: Take US 1 south past Sanford, turn right (west) at the Tramway stoplight, then turn left at the first road past the elementary school (look for the sign on the right). A little further away, but with an even greater selection (Big Bloomers got most of their collection from him), is Salvia specialist Richard Dufresne of Greensboro. Plant Delights in Raleigh also has a good selection, though with much higher prices.

For more information, see these two great books on the genus: A Book of Salvias: Sages for Every Garden by Betsy Clebsch and The Gardener's Guide to Growing Salvias by John Sutton. The best web site is Rich Dufresne's A World of Salvias. There's also a Salvia e-mail group.

Complete list of Salvias of North America (north of Mexico)

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All photographs and text ©2013 by Will Cook unless otherwise noted.