Sensational SALVIAS
Woman's Weekly Living Series|October 2021
From early summer to late autumn, shrubby salvias will sparkle like jewels
NICOLA STOCKEN

As summer drifts towards autumn and the sun sinks ever lower, it backlights and beautifies all flowers, but one group in particular sparkle with an intensity that sets them apart. These are shrubby salvias: tidy little bushes that are lavishly adorned with a myriad of tiny, gem-like flowers in shades of amethyst, garnet, topaz or opal. Starting in early summer, the flowers shine radiantly through summer hazes and autumn mists, until subdued by a dusting of frost.

Originating largely from Mexico and southernmost states of the US, today’s shrubby salvias fuse the untamed beauty of a wildflower with the skill of modern breeders who are producing hybrids in a huge range of colours and forms.

‘I love growing salvias, and there are few other plants that flower almost non-stop from May until November – you can even find some flowering on Christmas Day,’ enthuses William Dyson, a salvia specialist who breeds captivating new cultivars for which his nursery, Dyson’s Nurseries, is well-known.

Many are displayed throughout Great Comp Garden in Kent – William is the garden’s curator. ‘Once I discovered shrubby salvias, I became hooked, and since then, I’ve sought out as many forms as possible,’ he explains.

His love affair with salvias began in the early 1990s, after plant-hunters returned from Mexico with many exciting, hitherto unknown cultivars.

‘I acquired some seeds and planted them in dry, free-draining greensand where, to my surprise, they not only flourished, but also happily survived our winters,’ he says. ‘However, had they keeled over and died, it might have been a quite different story.’

While won over by the showy flowers, William was delighted by their tolerance to dry conditions. ‘With climate change, we are seeing increasingly dry summers, so drought-tolerant species are becoming very popular,’ he points out. The hardiest is Salvia microphylla, more so than Salvia greggii, while Salvia x jamensis is in the middle. Once they are established, they need no additional water other than rainfall. Nor do they need much care, apart from light pruning in spring and summer, and regular trimming of spent flower spikes.

The salvia family covers 900 species, including edible sage Salvia officinalis. Sage was used as a healing plant by Romans and Greeks – the name ‘Salvia’ derives from the Latin salveo, meaning ‘I heal’.

Among the most popular garden flowers are shrubby varieties which include S. microphylla, S. greggii and a cross between the two, S. x jamensis — a hybrid that occurs naturally in the wild, discovered in a remote valley in Mexico in the early 1990s.

It is predominantly from the greggii, microphylla and x jamensis species that William Dyson breeds new cultivars. Forming leafy bushes ranging from kneehigh to just over one metre, these perennials and shrubs not only make an invaluable addition to herbaceous borders and prairie planting, but also form a colourful display when mass planted. Singly, they can be grown in containers or dotted about gravel beds: alternatively, planted in a line, they add an attractive informal edging to a path. But above all, they are easy to grow, provided the soil is very well-drained and the position is sunny.

Shrubby salvias are nectarrich, and the bright flowers are prized by pollinating insects. The flowers are tiny, but close inspection reveals gorgeous detailing, and a surprising number of differences between varieties. The flowers are arranged on stiff stalks, which are sometimes coloured — pink, purple or near black.

Some flowers are a single rich colour or softly flushed — Salvia x jamensis ‘Heatwave Glimmer’ bears white flowers with the faintest blush. Others are bi-coloured, such as Salvia ‘Crazy Dolls’, a bold magenta above soft pink. The buds, too, can be richly hued — Salvia ‘Javier’ bears velvety, purplish-black buds that open to display purple flowers.

The leaves on shrubby salvias are small and abundant, arranged in pairs up each woody stem and between 2cm-4cm in length. Maybe the greatest feature of the leaves, though, is their aroma. ‘If a shrubby salvia is not flowering, I can tell its cultivar purely from the smell of the leaves,’ says William. He compares the fragrance of Salvia ‘Dyson’s Orangy Pink’ with pot-pourri, while Salvia ‘Nachtvlinder’ smells of blackcurrants. Studying the surface of a salvia leaf through a magnifying glass reveals glandular hairs that hold tiny globules of oil.

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