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Salvias rank high as favorite plants
By Norman Winter
Central Mississippi Research & Extension Center
Sages or salvias represent some of Mississippi's finest plants for the perennial garden, or for those who are seeking the cottage garden look. Their future looks even brighter based on Mississippi State University trials.
For years, the Truck Crops Branch Experiment Station in Crystal Springs has been wowing visitors at the Fall Flower and Garden Fest. The group of plants that keeps people taking pictures of is the salvias. Staples in the garden have been the Mississippi Medallion winner Victoria Blue, the Mexican bush sage and salvia indigo spires.
Mexican bush sage is drought tolerant and produces a mass of flowers suitable for cutting. In cut-flower trials by the University of Georgia, it has consistently produced 150 to 200 cut flowers per plant.
The Mexican bush sage starts budding in August and has spectacular blossoms until the first hard freeze. Since Mexican bush sage blooms on short days, if you grow it under a street light or floodlight, you will have a nice plant with no blooms.
It will need mulching to protect from extreme cold in the southern part of the state, and should probably be treated as an annual in northern regions. It is not so much the extreme cold that will take out salvias, but the combination of cold and wet. Good drainage is essential in your planting.
The salvia indigo spires has been a good perennial at both the Experiment Station and my house, but people growing it in the northern third of the state may have to treat it as an annual. It seems to be happiest kept 4-foot tall and pruned back occasionally.
The star of the trials at the Mississippi State Arboretum on campus last year was the pineapple sage. This should be a mandatory plant for all southern gardens. The pineapple sage produces spikes of scarlet red flowers that attract hummingbird as well as other gardeners. The flowers can be used as a garnish or added to salads and drinks.
When touched, the leaves of the pineapple sage give the aroma of fresh-crushed pineapple. They can be used for drinks, poultry dishes, cheeses, fruit salads, and jams and jellies. The young leaves also can be battered and fried, then dipped in a cream cheese dressing.
Look for the pineapple sage in the herb section of your garden center, and then plant in fertile, well-drained soils in full sun. They also make nice container plants for the porch or patio. Pineapple sage is perennial in zone 8 and 9 and considered a tender perennial in zone 7.
The most outstanding salvias of all MSU trials may be found at the South Mississippi Branch Experiment Station in Poplarville. Here two little-known salvias caught everyone off guard during their field day.
The first is the orange mountain sage (Salvia regla). This salvia reaches 4 feet in height with extra large, orange, tubular flowers. Like the Mexican bush sage, this is a short day bloomer, meaning it puts on its best show later in the year.
The forsythia sage (Salvia madriensis) was my favorite at the variety trial. It reaches a towering 7 feet with bright yellow bloom spikes of at least 12 to 18 inches. Hummingbirds seem very fond of this species.
In early April, I had the opportunity to go to the California Pack Trials to see the new plants there. Strangely, there were some salvias this year that caught my eye. Ball Flora Plant, a division of Ball Seed, is introducing a new series of Salvia greggii known to us as autumn sage. Despite the name, it blooms from spring until frost.
This group will be known as the Navajo Series and will offer a royal purple, yellow, cream and red. A plus for this species is that not only are they cold hardy but deer reportedly detest the plants.