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From Drab to Fab: Half-Hardy Salvias for Summer Fun
by Caleb Melchior - posted 05/28/18

‘Black and Blue’ azure sage (Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’) mixes well with other warm-weather annuals, blooming from midsummer to frost.

My first garden experiences with tropical sages were a bit drab. Six-packs of mealycup sage (Salvia farinacea) from the grocery store bloomed through the summer with flowers the color of new Levis. The next year, to be fancy, I grew the seed strain ‘Strata’. Its flowers were closer to the color of dirty overalls. Then, of course, there was red Texas sage (Salvia coccinea) and its variety ‘Lady in Red’ — far more elegant in name than in physical reality — plus its bizarre faded pink variant ‘Coral Nymph’.

Yes, they were reliable. They needed little attention, they tolerated heat and drought, and stayed colorful throughout the summer. But they didn’t do anything that a plastic cactus wouldn’t.

Up close, the vibrant blue of ‘Black and Blue’s flowers stands out within its dark navy-black bracts.

Then I met ‘Black and Blue’. ‘Black and Blue’ sage (Salvia guaranitica 'Black and Blue') has stunning cobalt flowers held in navy-black bracts. Unlike the dinky habits of many old-fashioned salvias, it grows large and luxurious, 24 to 30 inches high in one season, with rich green pebbled foliage. ‘Black and Blue’ spreads 18 to 24 inches wide over one growing season. As long as its roots are protected, it survives the cold as far north as USDA winter hardiness Zone 6. Where winter-hardy, it will slowly spread to 36 inches across. The flowers are produced regularly throughout the hot months, but become especially profuse with the arrival of cool autumn nights. 

Rarer than ‘Black and Blue’, with a lighter habit and flowers in a pale shade of blue, West Texas cobalt sage (Salvia reptans West Texas form) is an extraordinary perennial that’s rarely encountered in gardens or nurseries. Cobalt sage (Salvia reptans) is an indigenous North American salvia species that occurs throughout the western United States. West Texas cobalt sage is a specific form selected from wild populations for its upright habit and cobalt-blue flowers. Throughout the spring and summer, it grows into a 40-inch high mass of bright green, upright stems with small linear leaves. In August, it ripples into a fantastic mass of tiny pale-blue and deep-blue flowers. The narrow stems contort under the weight of the flowers, swaying airily into surrounding plantings. Use it to strew a pale blue veil of fresh flowers through the faded mass of the late summer garden. West Texas cobalt sage is winter hardy through Zone 5. It thrives in well-drained, even gravelly soils.

A rare perennial, West Texas cobalt sage (Salvia reptans West Texas form) self-sows daintily in free-draining soils, making in an excellent filler for garden edges that are forgotten by the gardener.

If your garden is drowning in late-summer blues, plant ‘Wendy’s Wish’ sage (Salvia x ‘Wendy’s Wish’). Its fine flowers, which are the color of ripe raspberries, are carried abundantly on dark purple stems decked out with weirdly scalloped leaves. The leaves are an unusual color as well, about 30 percent gray and 70 percent green, with the purple of the stems leaking into the leaves along their veins in cool weather. While its parentage is unknown, ‘Wendy’s Wish’ is quickly becoming a favorite of gardeners across the country. It blooms off and on throughout the summer, erupting into a giant mass of bright pink flower wands in autumn. Depending on growing conditions, it can reach anywhere from 30 to 48 inches high and wide. It is perennial in USDA Winter Hardiness Zones 8 and warmer. Farther north, include it in your garden schemes as a quick-growing tropical for summer and autumn fun.

Opening just a few flowers at a time, Andean sage (Salvia discolor) has elegant pale gray-green bracts that hold sensational almost-black flowers.

Unlike the three other sages featured here, Andean sage (Salvia discolor) won’t draw your attention from across the garden. Instead, it repays close consideration. One of the oddest little salvias, Andean sage has flowers the color of crushed black velvet, with just a hint of purple to their sheen. Few other flowers have such a deep hue. The sheen of the sage flowers’ surfaces makes them particularly intriguing. Only a few of the “black” irises and ‘Queen of Night’ tulips come close to the same richness and depth. Its leaves are smart as well, felted gray-green on top and white underneath. Andean sage is easy to grow, in sun or part shade, reaching 18 inches high and 24 inches across in most growing seasons. It is also winter hardy to USDA Zone 8, but may return further north with good drainage.

Whether inclined to the subtle or the show-stopping, no gardener could be bored with these four fantastic sages. Their vibrant colors and generous flowering will transform your summer plantings. Say goodbye to drab — welcome these fab four tropical sages into your garden today.


A version of this article appeared in a June 2014 edition of the State-by-State Gardening eNewsletter.
Photography courtesy of Caleb Melchoir.


Caleb Melchior is living the prairie dream as a graduate landscape architect student. He looks forward to the day when he, once again, has a garden of his own in which to grow all of the plants that catch his eye.