David GlennFavourite autumn flowering salvias

Dennis Norgate grew the Prairie Sage, Salvia azurea, for decades when he ran his justly renowned Norgates Plant Farm just outside Trentham in the central highlands of Victoria. I got it off him more than forty years ago and have always found a spot for it in the garden, sometimes planting large patches sometimes just the odd plant.

Salvia azurea

Salvia azurea

This Salvia has a wide distribution in the USA, from Nebraska to Colorado, Texas to Kentucky. It was early introduced into English gardens where it was well established by 1840 although it was then more often grown in glass houses than in gardens because of its late flowering habit.

The flowers of Salvia azurea, blue like the Aegean on a clear summer’s morning, are carried on 90cm long lax stems each with twenty or more large blooms open at once. It’s impossible to make Prairie Sage neat and tidy as it is in its nature to loll around. Staking doesn’t help as all it does is make the plants look awkward and gangly. Whilst many Salvias are drought tolerant this one isn’t and it always needs extra irrigation during summer if it’s to flourish.

In the vegetable garden we have double flower borders, each some fifty metres long by 3 metres wide, lining the central path. We plant these beds with brightly coloured annuals, bulbs and perennials mostly in bright oranges, reds and yellows with some touches of clear pink, gentian blue and soft peach. I usually let nasturtiums trail onto the path but this year planted Salvia azurea along the sides of both beds with each plant placed close to the path so that they would spill forward onto the gravel. It started flowering in early March and is still incredibly beautiful as I write in mid-April.

Salvia azura in the Lambley vegetable garden

Salvia azura in the Lambley vegetable garden

Salvia azurea is herbaceous, that is it dies to the ground during winter and reshoots the following spring. A lot of gardeners, especially those new to the craft, struggle with the idea of herbaceousness and prefer to plant evergreens not realising what an advantage it is to have herbaceous perennials in the garden as it allows the under planting of spring flowering bulbs. The bulbs grow, flower and make new bulbs whilst the perennials are hibernating and when the bulbs are finished their work the perennials can take over the space again.

Many of the North American sages are at their best in April, at least here in Central Victoria. Hot summer days mean that there are rarely more than one or two flowers open on each stem at any one time as the heat shortens the life of each bloom. Cooler weather in autumn allows each individual flower to last much longer so that there are many more flowers open on each stem at once. As most Salvias make more and more flowering stems as the season goes on the display gets finer and finer until the first sharp frost comes along.

Salvia leucantha 'Harry's Red'

Salvia leucantha ‘Harry’s Red’

Salvia leucantha, its clones and hybrids, are amongst the best of all perennials for autumn display. For many years we had to do with two varieties, Salvia leucantha with whitish flowers from fuzzy purple-mauve calyces and Salvia ‘Midnight’ with mauve flowers from the same coloured calyces. Both grow 150cm tall by as much across in good soil. A dwarfish form, Salvia ‘Santa Barbara’, was introduced from the USA a few years ago. In my garden it makes 100cm in height by 120cm wide.

The showiest of all this species though is one I found growing in an old garden in Melbourne. A long-dead senior gardener from the Melbourne Botanic Gardens had lived there and I can only guess that Salvia ‘Harry’s Red’ is an old clone which had been long lost to the nursery trade or maybe it was a sport of Salvia ‘Midnight’ which had just cropped up in that garden. Be that as it may this is the brightest of all Salvia leucantha clones with its purple calyx and a bright purple-red flower. It has made a dense floriferous plant some 150cm tall by 180cm across in our new Mediterranean garden. If I sit quietly I often see it shiver as a family of New Holland Honeyeaters feasts on its nectar.

Salvia leucantha 'White Velour'

Salvia leucantha ‘White Velour’

Two other varieties recently came to Australia from South Africa and they are astonishingly different from all that had gone before. It’s hard to understand where the genes for the pure white calyces and flowers came from in Salvia leucantha ‘White Velour’. This is a superb flowering plant although not so hardy in my garden where it needs regular replacing. Salvia ‘Pink Velour’ has similar white calyces but the flowers are baby pink.

I cut all Salvia leucantha varieties back to the ground during May as the under planted bulbs are starting to grow and autumn frosts have usually damaged the flowers by then. I live in an area which gets spring frosts well into November so this Salvia rarely gets under way here until December and doesn’t flowers until March. In softer climes, such as Sydney, this plant hardly ever stops flowering but it should still be cut to the ground sometime during winter to freshen it up.

[This is a sponsored post from Lambley Nursery, Ascot, Victoria. Browse Lambley’s full perennial catalogue]

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David Glenn

About David Glenn

David Glenn, the owner of Lambley Nursery, has been a passionate gardener and nurseryman for most of his seventy years. He gardens with his wife, artist Criss Canning. The garden at Lambley is open to visitors every day of the year.

16 thoughts on “Favourite autumn flowering salvias

  1. Hi David,
    Great to see you contributing to GardenDrum. Your amazing passion and knowledge will be of much use!
    I encourage everyone to fit a visit to Lambley Nursery into their schedules, you won’t be disappointed.

    • Hi Amanda
      For years there has been a desperate need for a magazine or blog which talks to Australian gardeners as intelligent grown-ups not Kindergarten kids. The Garden Drum fills that need, thank goodness.

  2. Hi David, Your stand was very popular at last week’s Collectors’ Plant Fair. Good to see Patrick so busy. I bought an Origanum dictamnus from you, a plant I’ve been searching for for ages. Your salvias are lovely and oldies like S. azurea are so valuable. Great to see your blog on the Drum.
    Peta Trahar

    • Hi Peta,
      Patrick had a great time at the Collectors Fair and came back to Lambley with a near empty truck. I had also coveted Origanum dictamnus, (Dittany of Crete) for decades. Marcus Harvey of Hillview Rare Plants in Tasmania generously sent me a few plants two years ago. I grow this species in my scree beds. These raised beds are very well drained and topped with 2 or 3 cm of fine gravel to keep the neck and foliage of the Origanum dry and free from soil splashing.

  3. Hi David
    It is my favourite salvia, I wish I had more sun and space in my garden, I have struggle to find the right spot for it with enough sunlight. Your picture of it combined with the orange marigolds is stunning.
    Cheers Sandi

    • Salvia azurea will grow in some very light shade. Salvia leucantha grows for me in slightly heavier shade where it grows half the size it would in the sun. The only Salvia I grow in quite dense shade is Salvia forskaohlei which was collected by Jim and Jenny Archibald in woodland near the Turkish Black Sea coast. I grow it under olives and tall Echium.

      • Hi David

        Such an interesting post! I love my salvia leucantha midnight! The one you mentioned thats Harry’s Red, sounds beautiful is their any possibility to buy some seeds from you? I live in South Africa.
        Also I heard about the dwarf leucantha midnight or known as Santa Barbara is there maybe seeds availlable as I cant find it anywhere in South Africa?
        Happy gardening!


  4. I’ll add my voice to the chorus of good will. Love your work. The Nurserymans Nurseryman!

    Be keen to hear what bulbs you underplant with one day too David.

    • Thanks Eugene. My wife is often called a painter’s painter but I’ve never been called a nurseryman’s nurseryman before. As I think the work of growing good plants is the most important in the world I’m thrilled to accept the compliment.

  5. Wonderful to see you on the ‘Drum’ David. Even though I love my Australian plants I have never forgotten your wonderful nursery, your amazing knowledge and of course your wonderful collection of plants, particularly perennials. I will be following your blogs with great interest.
    Best regards

    • Thanks for those generous words Marianne. I’m lucky to have very good staff here at Lambley. All of them are keen to give good and quick service. Most of the time we succeed but there are occasional delays when a new catalogue first goes out as we get many hundreds of orders in a few days.

  6. Dear David, I absolutely love receiving your garden notes – it inspires me to plant more!! I also have two DVDs now – Spring and Autumn and I watch these when I feel like some R&R. I am interested in planting more grasses so thank you for the latest catalogue. The next challenge in gardening for me is to learn how to fill those spaces between seasons … when one plant is not flowering, to fill the space with something that is.

  7. Dear Angela
    I’m glad you enjoy my Garden Notes and the DVDs. I mostly use bulbs to give a longer flowering season although annuals fill in gaps here too especially in the flower borders in the vegetable garden. This year I’m planting tulips and Ranunculus under and behind the Salvia azurea for early spring flowers.

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