Tom Hewitt is a writer and gardening consultant from West Palm Beach. He can be reached at

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The Prettiest Salvias You’ve Never Seen
by Tom Hewitt       #Flowers   #Plant Profile   #Unusual

Salvias like S. splendens ‘Van Houttei’ (L) and ‘Mystic Spires Blue’ (R) are indispensable in a butterfly garden.

Years ago, while visiting family in Denver, Colorado, I discovered a lone salvia in a nursery that took my breath away. It wasn’t labeled, but that didn’t matter. I just knew I had to have it, so I gave it a haircut and somehow managed to fit it into my suitcase. You know you have issues when you forgo socks and underwear to make room for a “must have” plant.

It would be several months before I identified my special find as Salvia x guaranitica ‘Purple Majesty’. By then, I had taken dozens of cuttings and today it’s one of the best-selling plants in the Mounts nursery. It’s also one of a dozen or so tropical salvias in my butterfly garden that I just can’t do without.

‘Purple Majesty’ will always be one of my favorites, along with bog sage (S. uliginosa), forsythia sage (S. madrensis), S. mexicana ‘Compton’s Form’ and ‘Limelight’, and several others that are becoming easier to find. But there are so many other lesser-known species that are worth searching out.

Of some 900 known species of salvia, over half hail from Central and South America. Though many come from higher altitudes, we’ve only scratched the surface of those adaptable to Florida.

Here are a few unusual varieties that most Floridians might not be familiar with:

Belize sage is a great hummingbird attractor in light shade. • Fuzzy Bolivian sage likes more water than most. • Sinaloa sage may be small, but it’s perfect for containers or the front of a border.

Belize sage (S. miniata) is a hummingbird favorite of mine for areas in partial shade. It has pretty, glossy leaves, and fuzzy, orange-red flowers. Belize sage blooms nearly year-round in my garden, and can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 9-11.

Fuzzy Bolivian sage (S. oxyphora) is a new one for us at Mounts, but has performed beautifully so far. It produces dense spikes of fuzzy, magenta blooms spring through fall. It does like its water, however, so be sure to put it where it’s hit by sprinklers at least twice a week. It can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10.

Sinaloa sage (S. sinaloensis) is a small salvia with tiny, intense blue flowers. Topping out at one foot or less, it’s perfect for containers or the front of the border. This one also blooms for me most of the year, and can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10.

Roseleaf sage (S. involucrata) produces magenta blooms from rounded buds, and has beautiful heart-shaped leaves. It tends to ramble in my garden, but new cultivars like ‘Mulberry Jam’ are smaller and more upright. It grows in USDA Hardiness Zones 8-10.

Tall big leaf sage (S. macrophylla ‘Upright Form’) has a mounding habit, and sends up spikes of cobalt blue flowers well above its fuzzy foliage. This one hates the cold, and is only reliably hearty in USDA Hardiness Zones 9-10.

Roseleaf sage has magenta blooms and beautiful, heart-shaped foliage. • Tall big leaf sage has a naturally pretty form and gorgeous blooms. • Peruvian sage is often grown more for its pretty, aromatic foliage than its flowers.

Mountain sage (S. microphylla) is often mistaken for autumn sage (S. greggii) both of which tend to have a limited lifespan in my garden, but I just can’t resist growing a variety of mountain sage called ‘Wild Watermelon’. It has pink blooms and leaves with a delightfully fruity scent. It can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10.

Peruvian sage (S. discolor) is mainly grown for its pretty leaves, which are apple-green on top and white underneath. This one is scandent in nature, so it tends to trail a bit. I put it in a large pot near the front of the border and let it cascade over the edges. Its purple blooms are almost black, and it grows in USDA Hardiness Zones 9-10.

‘Wild Watermelon’ sage has pink blooms and extremely aromatic leaves. • Galeana red sage resembles tropical sage on steroids.

Galeana red sage (S. darcyi) resembles tropical sage (S. coccinea), except that its orange-red blooms are twice as big. It has pretty, soft green foliage and can be grown in USDA Hardiness Zones 7-10.

Not all salvias I experiment with are long-lived in my zone 10 garden. With some species, finding just the right location makes all the difference. In general, salvias are ridiculously easy to care for. Though most are sun-lovers, many appreciate shade during the hottest part of the day, especially during our summers. Remember to deadhead to keep them blooming and cut them back once flowering is over. Most are not picky about soils, but must be given good drainage. Bog sage is the only one in my garden that likes wet feet.

Many tropical salvias can be hard to find, since most must be started from cuttings. The Mounts Botanical Garden nursery in West Palm Beach has one of the widest selections of tropical salvias in the state. Flowers by the Sea (, based in Elk, California, has an incredible inventory online. For further information on salvias, read A Book of Salvias by Betsy Clebsch, or check out the University of Florida EDIS website at www.


A version of this article appeared in Florida Gardening Volume 22 Number 5.
Photography courtesy of Tom Hewitt.


Posted: 09/29/17   RSS | Print


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