Types of Salvia Flowers

Annual and Perennial Kinds are Both Wildly Popular

Salvia farinaceae with blue flowers massed in a field.

Luis Veiga/Photographer's Choice / Getty Images

The salvia flowers we find so often in the landscape are part of a large genus (Salvia) of plants in the mint family, including the herb used in cooking known as "sage." In fact, a common name for the red kind (S. splendens) that we know so well as a bedding plant is "scarlet sage." In this introduction, several types of salvia flowers commonly seen in landscaping will be presented, with an eye to acquainting beginners with the variety of choices available.

"Annual" Salvia Flowers

Let's begin with a couple of types of salvia flowers which, although perennials in their warm, native lands, are treated as annual plants by a large number of gardeners (that is, people living in more northerly regions):

  1. Red salvia (S. splendens)
  2. Victoria Blue salvia (S. farinacea 'Victoria Blue')

Salvia splendens is best known as a plant with scarlet blooms, but these flowers do come in other colors, too, including white, salmon, pink, purple, lavender, burgundy, and orange. As early as 1952, American author, Alfred Hottes said of the scarlet type in The Book of Annuals (Page 141) that there "is no question regarding its growth or its blooming qualities, but in some cities, its hot color is seen on so many streets that it becomes monotonous." 

Not surprisingly, since red salvia flowers are still widely used in North America these many years later, the plants' critics continue to scoff at the "overuse" of red salvia flowers. Like many popular bedding plants, including impatiens plants, they are victims of their own success. Familiarity does, after all, breed contempt. Yet the function they serve is undeniable: When trying to inject a splash of red into the landscape for the summer in an area with full sun, few plants outperform red salvia. 

There are, however, more options for red landscape plants than there are for blue ones. Deep, true blue (as opposed to a purplish blue) is a highly sought after color in annual flowers. Victoria Blue salvia flowers give us just this prized color. Treated as annuals north of USDA plant hardiness zone 7 (they are native to Texas and Mexico), Victoria Blue salvia flowers are a real find for gardeners who adore blue. They are a good substitute in red-white-and-blue patriotic plantings in the United States for gardeners who do not care for the more commonly used blue ageratum.

Some Hardier Types of Salvia Flowers

Commonly grown perennials in the North belonging to this genus include:

  1. May Night
  2. Caradonna
  3. Blue Hill

Not for nothing were May Night salvia flowers (S. nemorosa 'May Night') honored as the top perennials for 1997. These vigorous plants bear lance-shaped leaves and many spikes of purplish-blue blooms. Many gardeners deadhead their May Night salvia flowers (or trim them with pruning shears), but they sometimes bloom throughout the summer even without deadheading. Removing the spent flowers does keep the plant looking tidier, though.

As pleased as you will be with May Night, you will find Caradonna salvia flowers (S. nemorosa 'Caradonna') even more striking. Dark purple stems and delicate spikes of deep purplish-blue blooms thrust skyward out of the mass of leaves at the base, like so many colorful rockets. For best effect, try to give them a brightly-colored backdrop; shrubs with golden foliage will do the trick nicely.

Does their name tell the whole story behind Blue Hill salvia (S. nemorosa 'Blue Hill')? Well, not quite. Blue Hill salvia flowers were advertised as an answer to the call for more "true blue" floral options. And, indeed, their flowers' color is lighter than that of May Night or Caradonna (less purplish). But the color is nowhere near as much of a true blue as with Victoria Blue.

Of course, Blue Hill has the advantage of being a perennial for most of the temperate zone; so, in a sense, it is not entirely fair to compare the two. Moreover, Blue Hill is certainly a serviceable plant that does a great job of drawing bees to the landscape. Growing Blue Hill and the other blue-flowered salvia plants that have been mentioned could set your planting bed abuzz with the drone of the honey bees. They attract butterflies, as well.

Perennial Sage (Salvia nemarosa) 'Caradonna' - III
Caradonna flowers. AlpamayoPhoto / Getty Images

Hardy Choices for Perennial Salvias in Pink

There are fewer selections with pink flowers, especially for Northern gardeners. One of the prettiest that is off-limits to those who live where winters are cold is Salvia coccinea 'Summer Jewel Pink' (zones 7-10). But gardeners north of zone 7 do have the following choices:

  1. Salvia greggii 'Wild Thing' (zones 6 to 9) grows 2 to 3 feet in height, with a similar spread.
  2. Salvia x sylvestris 'Pink Dawn,' sometimes sold under the name of "Color Spires" (zones 4 to 8), is a compact 18 inches by 18 inches.
  3. "Raspberry Delight" (zones 6 to 10) is a bigger perennial, reaching 3 feet tall and 3 feet wide. Its flowers are also a deeper color (raspberry, as the name suggests).
salvia greggii (sage) october oakland, california
Salvia greggii. Christi Carter Photography / Getty Images