Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Old sages

One group of plants which came into its own in the perennial revival boom of the late 20th century was the ornamental flowering sages of the Salvia genus. Today there are over 150 different salvias available in Australian plant nurseries. Most of these have been imported over the last 25 years, but there are some which have been grown in our gardens for nearly two centuries.

Salvia patens as illustrated in
Edwards' Ornamental Flower Garden (1854)

For many the best known salvias are the common culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) and the scarlet red bedding sage (Salvia splendens) both of which were growing in Australia by the middle of the nineteenth century. The culinary herb may have been the first sage imported into the colony while the red bedding sage probably came here in the 1840s, although it was not listed on plant catalogues until the early 1850s. 

Another early import was the red flowered tropical sage (Salvia cocinnea). This plant is much gentler on the eye than the red bedding sage and also comes in a white flowered form. Its self-seeding habit has made it a weed in tropical areas of the world so it is hard to find on local seed lists. Despite this it can be found in old gardens and grows easily from seed sown in spring or early summer.

The most popular blue flowered salvia was the gentian sage (Salvia patens). This beautiful plant appears in almost all nursery catalogues from the 1850s and seems to be one of the most popular perennials used in nineteenth century gardens. Being hardy to light frost it is an ideal plant for most temperate climates although it has a tendency to spread by vegetative growth.

Apart from Salvia splendens (which was used in mass plantings), most nineteenth century salvias were used simply as filler plants in large garden beds. Although they never enjoyed the popularity of fuchsias, carnations, or geraniums, the salvias’ long flowering habit and ease of propagation would have made them a hard plant to ignore in the nineteenth century Australian garden. Perhaps owners, gardeners and designers of heritage gardens will review their planting selections to include some of these much-loved early perennial favourites.

Salvias commonly found in nineteenth century Australia gardens

Salvia africana-lutea* (syn: Salvia aurea) available from 1850s
Salvia azurea - prairie sage – available from 1850s
Salvia coccinea – commonly available by 1850
Salvia farinacea - mealy sage – appears on nursery lists by late 1880s
Salvia microphylla ‘Kew Red’ – (syn: Salvia grahamii) – available from 1880s
Salvia officinalis* - common sage - probably the first imported sage
Salvia patens  - gentian sage – appears on many local nursery lists from 1850s
Salvia splendens – tall growing red cultivars available in Australia by 1850s 
* denotes a frost hardy species

While a limited range of salvias are available from most nurseries the best range is available from Sue Tempteton's Unlimited Perennials nursery at 369 Boomerang Drive, Lavington 2641, NSW. Tel 02 - 6025 4585. Sue has a mail order service and website http://www.salviaspecialist.com/

Salvia illustration courtesy of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney, Library


  1. Silas, I've become very fond of Salvias recently - especially Mexican sage - so thankyou for this information.

  2. I love this salvia too! A real tough plant that looks good for much of the year.

  3. A wise advice on growing up this kind of plants would be a great helpful to me ! Hope to see some suggestions and tips from everyone !

    Salvia for sale

    Regards.... Jessie


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