If you plant it:

Colorful salvia is sure to attract a crowd of pollinators to your yard

By Mary Maguire Lerman

If you want to attract pollinators to your garden, there is no better plant than salvia. Salvia, also known as sage, is a multi­purpose bloomer that attracts bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. And with the many varieties available, salvia can be blooming in your garden from late spring to the first killing frost. Another advantage: Salvia does not attract hungry rabbits or deer.

Breeders have introduced an amazing variety of tropical salvia in recent years. They can be grown as annuals in our northern clime. A large variety of perennial salvias have also been flooding the market.

Famous Dutch garden designer and breeder Piet Oudolf introduced six new perennial salvias over the past two decades. The intense blue annual anise-hummingbird sage (Salvia guaranitica Black and Blue) came on the market in 1996. Since then, breeding programs in the United States, Australia and Europe have produced a tremendous variety of annual and perennial hybrids and cultivars.

This spring you can find between two and four dozen varieties of salvia at such local garden centers as Egg|Plant Urban Farm Supply, Leitners, Lilydale Garden Center, Highland Nursery and Mother Earth Gardens. The pollinator plant sale formerly held at the Temple of Aaron will be conducted online this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The sale will feature 33 varieties of salvia. Orders may be placed through the St. Anthony Park Garden Club (stanthonyparkgardenclub.com) until May 20 and picked up on Saturday, May 23. Proceeds will go toward the purchase of personal protective equipment for St. Paul’s first responders.

Hummingbirds, like fellow pollinators bees and butterflies, are attracted to salvia for its nectar. The tiny birds must consume the nectar of 1,500 blooms per day to maintain their metabolic activity. Shown here are hummingbirds sipping from orange-red pentas blooms, approaching the bluish-purple bloom of Salvia Black and Blue and resting atop another plant.

This year visitors to Longfellow Gardens in Minnehaha Park will find 10 varieties of annual salvias growing, according to its gardener, Teresa Burton. These include Mystic Spires, Rockin Deep Purple, Rockin Fuchsia, Evolution, Amistad, Black and Blue, Summer Jewels White, Wendy’s Wish, Seascape Mix and Roman Red. Roman Red is a hybrid that grows to a height and width of 28 to 34 inches with bloom spikes that rise high above the foliage.

Longfellow Gardens’ salvias regularly attract a swarm of hummingbirds in September (check out the MPRB Longfellow Gardens Facebook page). You need a lot of salvia to attract hummingbirds. Each bird must consume the nectar of 1,500 flowers per day to maintain its metabolic activity. Watching the tiny birds dip and dive over the blooms as they fight for nectar can be mesmerizing.

Sage has been prized for its culinary and medicinal qualities for centuries. It was one of the ingredients of the Four Thieves Vinegar used in Europe during the late Middle Ages as protection against the bubonic plague or Black Death. In 2019 the Royal Horticultural Society of England reclassified the culinary herb rosemary as a salvia following DNA research. The species Salvia officinalis is an ancient medicinal and culinary sage. It has cultivars with colorful foliage. Though it does not bloom in Minnesota, it can be grown in containers and rock gardens for seasonal accents.

There are a variety of annual sages that produce huge numbers of flowers. Mealy-cup sage and Salvia farinacea (Victoria White, Victoria Blue, Evolution, Strata and Seaside Mix) all thrive in hot sun. Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) does not bloom until late summer, but its pineapple-scented foliage will entertain you long before the blooms arrive.

The chartreuse foliage of Rockin Golden Delicious is another standout. Gentian sage (Salvia patens) has the most brilliant large blooms. Look for the ultramarine cultivar Blue Angel to be sold in six-packs at garden centers this spring. Mexican sage (Salvia coccinea) features a range of colors, from white and soft pink or peach to lavender and deep red. Black-currant sage (Salvia microphylla) and Texas sage (Salvia greggii) have much smaller flowers and small gray-green leaves; however, they still attract pollinators. They are great in hot, sunny containers.

Anise sages (Salvia guaranitica) have become wildly popular. These amazingly large plants have huge blooms, often with contrasting stem colors that make the blooms pop. A hybrid—the Wishes series—was bred in Australia; every time you purchase one a portion of the sale goes to the Make A Wish Foundation in Australia.

Scarlet sage (Salvia splendens) has been a bedding plant for over a century. There are singles and bicolors with a wide range of bloom colors.

A biennial, silver sage (Salvia argentea) produces a rosette of fuzzy, silvery leaves the first season, followed by a candelabra spike of white flowers the following year.

There are over 80 cultivars of perennial salvias on the market, though you are likely to find a limited selection at any one garden center. Be sure to seek out the new dwarf salvia cultivars, including the Bumble, Marvel and Profusion series. They are perfect for the front border in gardens and rockeries. And if you can’t find a particular variety locally, chances are you can track one down online.

For more information on salvias, take part in the free webinar that will be offered through the Minnesota State Horticultural Society on May 27. To enroll in the webinar, visit northerngardener.org.

The ANSR to your plant desires

The Association for Nonsmokers-Minnesota (ANSR) will hold its 37th annual plant sale during the second week of May at 1647 Laurel Ave. Brandywine, Prudence Purple, Old German, Chocolate Cherry, Golden Jubilee and Amana Orange are just some of the heirloom tomatoes that will be available at the sale. There will be a variety of peppers and herbs for sale, as well as a large variety of annuals and perennials for sun and shade.

The plants will be sold according to the honor system beginning May 11. Socially distant helpers will be on hand for plant sales between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Friday and Saturday, May 15 and 16. For more information, call 651-646-3005 or visit ansrmn.org.