The Plant Lover's Guide to Salvias

The Plant Lover's Guide to Salvias

by John Whittlesey


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Salvias seduce gardeners with showy flowers and fragrant foliage, and are veritable magnets for throngs of bees, birds, and butterflies. While best known for their brilliant blue and deep purple hues, salvias have an incredible color range that spans from white and yellow to almost black. Many are wonderfully long blooming, drought-tolerant, deer-resistant, and easy to cultivate in most climates. In this inspiring guide, expert nurseryman John Whittlesey reveals his tips and tricks for using these timeless plants in the garden.

The Plant Lover’s Guide books offer a rich source of information on both new and classic garden plants. Written by enthusiastic experts, they recommend the best varieties for different situations, inspire ideas for new plant combinations, and are packed with resources for the home gardener. These gorgeous guides celebrate the beauty of each plant and form a comprehensive library that every plant lover will want to own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604694192
Publisher: Timber Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 04/22/2014
Series: The Plant Lover's Guides
Pages: 220
Sales rank: 1,260,893
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Owner of Canyon Creek Nursery and Design in northern California, John Whittlesey is a nurseryman, garden designer, landscape contractor, and avid amateur photographer. As a specialty grower and a designer, he enjoys interesting plants and creating attractive, water-conserving gardens that provide habitat for people and wildlife. Due to his early interest in salvias, the Canyon Creek Nursery catalog had one of the first extensive offerings in the country, and he continues to incorporate them generously into his gardens. John is a graduate of the California School of Garden Design. A retrospective of his career was profiled in the Spring 2011 issue of Pacific Horticulture.

Read an Excerpt

Introduction: Why I Love Salvias
Some people grow salvias for their showy flowers. Others grow them for their textured and often fragrant foliage. I grow salvias not only for their intrinsic value as beautiful plants in a landscape, but also for the added wildlife they attract that enlivens my garden and my life. Planted strategically throughout my property, salvias create daily opportunities for me to observe hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.
On summer and fall mornings, the droning buzz of hefty, glossy black carpenter bees greets me when I step out onto my deck at the break of dawn for my first sip of coffee. These bees begin their day early, drinking nectar from a container-grown Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’. It is barely light and I am only aware of the bees because of their urgent, persistent buzzing. 
Later, when I step outside my front door to begin the day’s work, a rigidly straight path of decomposed granite, confined by two-by-four edging, leads from the front door to the gravel parking area where my truck awaits. Midway down the path, a chest-high Salvia clevelandii (Cleveland sage) has eased itself into the way, leaning so that anyone walking there is gently encouraged to slow and step around. The placement of this particular salvia is perfect. 

I have started down this path many mornings to begin the day, only to pause and watch a hummingbird moving unhurriedly, sipping nectar from the tightly bunched whorls of blue flowers spaced along the slender woody stems, or to wait for the pipevine swallowtail butterfly, its blue-black coloring shimmering in the morning light, until it has flitted off after getting its fill of nectar. On days when there are no hummingbirds or butterflies to distract, I notice the loud buzzing of carpenter bees or bumblebees as they move hurriedly between flowers to gather pollen or nectar.

Even when not in flower, the Cleveland sage gives me reason to have it along a pathway. The stiff, gray-green leaves treat me and other passersby to a sharp, yet pleasant fragrance of crisp camphor overlaid with a blend of resinous desert scents—a fragrance that appeals to many, me included. 
Across from the Cleveland sage, low-growing Salvia lavandulifolia (Spanish sage) puddles out over the wood edging onto the gravel path. For a month in midspring, this tidy plant with narrow silvery gray foliage is topped by 8-inch (3-cm) spikes of large lavender-blue flowers. Nestled against the fine foliage of the intensely silver Santolina chamaecyparissus (lavender cotton) with Eriogonum umbellatum (sulfur buckwheat) behind, this pleasing trio looks attractive year-round, whether in flower or not, a subtle blend of silver, gray, and light green.

The path I am following divides an area that is part meadow, part lawn. Edging this area is an informal hedge of Salvia microphylla ‘San Carlos Festival’, selected for this location because of its compact habit, substantive pebbled foliage, and short stems of colorful rose-red flowers. These cover the plants beginning in late spring, when the first flush of flowers opens, and continue sporadically through summer and fall. Behind this grouping is a lone plant of S. heldreichiana that has made a low mound of divided, gray-green leaves. The long, slender stems with deep lavender-blue flowers rise above the surrounding plantings, beckoning more pipevine swallowtails, bees, and hummingbirds.

Just before the path reaches the steps that lead down to the parking area, Salvia spathacea (hummingbird sage) has colonized in the partial shade cast by a nearby olive tree and is nestled up against silver-plumed Miscanthus sinensis ‘Graziella’. The deep olive green leaves of hummingbird sage are large and textured, forming a loose mat only a few inches high. In midspring the stout, vertical flowering stems rise up tightly packed with crimson-red flowers peeking through the dark calyces. Like Cleveland sage, hummingbird sage gives pedestrians reason to pause, as if waiting for the crosswalk light to change to green, until the hummingbird has finished its visitation.

These scenes that play out in the garden slow me down, stop me, make me aware of the active life in the garden, not unlike the ringing of a monastery bell as a reminder to be present. To grow salvias is to be awakened by all the senses. The hummingbird or the delicate flight of a butterfly brings me into the present, slowing me down on a morning when scattered thoughts are of the day ahead as I head to my truck. The sharp scent of Cleveland sage fills the air and the nose for an instant, just long enough to bring an awakened awareness to where I am—in that moment. These brief scenes encountered along a path of carefully chosen plants are why I garden, and why I plant salvias in my garden and in the gardens I design.

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