Planting Nectar Rich Salvia to Attract Pollinators to the Garden

by David Salman

Pipeline Butterfly with Salvia Raspberry Delight
Salvia Raspberry Delight has nectar-rich hot-pink flowers to attract butterflies.

Growing Native and Old World Salvia

The genus Salvia, collectively referred to as Sage, is a huge group of flowering plants that are found growing in the wild across the globe, on every continent except Antarctica. As you'd expect from such a widely distributed group of plants, they are very diverse. And yet they all have in common the following characteristics:

  • They have showy flowers in a rainbow of colors.
  • Their aromatic foliage makes them very resistant to browsing deer and rabbits.
  • Their nectar-rich flowers attract a wide range of pollinators including honey and native bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.

By familiarizing yourself with this huge genus, you'll be able to find the right Salvia for your garden's growing conditions. I like to divide the genus into two large groups; Old World varieties and Native varieties.

Old World Beauties

The most commonly planted Salvia originate from the ‘Old World’ of Europe and Asia. Many of these ‘Old World’ species and cultivars have been widely grown on both sides of the Atlantic for a long time and there are many great plants to choose from. From a pollinator perspective, this group of Salvia is very attractive to butterflies and all types of honey and native bees. As to flowers, these ‘Old World’ Sages bloom primarily in shades of blue, pink and white. They are generally well adapted to cold climates and a wide range of soils including clay.

My favorite Old World Salvia include:

  • Salvia sylvestris ‘May Night’ – a robust grower with very dark blue flower spikes on a re-blooming plant. Shear after first bloom to stimulate another late summer display. One of the best perennials of the 20th century.
  • Salvia sylvestris ‘Caradonna’ - The tallest of the S. sylvestris hybrids with black flower stems and deep blue flowers. A favorite nectar source for our native bumblebees.
  • Salvia sylvestris 'Little Night' PPAF - a High Country Gardens exclusive, 'Little Night' is a dwarf seedlings of 'May Night'. This little gem has all the wonderful attributes of its larger grower parent but matures to a blooming height of only 12 to 14 inches. Perfect for small beds and narrow spaces.
  • Salvia sylvestris ‘Blue Hill’ – Beautiful clear blue flowers and a tidy rounded shape. Every plant looks better alongside ‘Blue Hill’

Savlia pachyphlla Blue FlameSavlia pachyphlla Blue Flamehas blue flowers and pink brackts that attract hummingbirds.

Clay Loving Salvia and Companion Plants

All of these sages thrive in a wide range of soil types including clay and clay-loam soils which is a wonderful attribute for those of us who struggle to find clay tolerant plants. Here are some clay-loving companion plants that you can plant with Salvia.

Note: These Salvia grow in other soils equally well and can be paired with an infinite number of other plants that like loams and sandy soils. However, it seems we are always struggling to find clay lovers, so I like to call our attention to this fact.

American Natives

The western half of the United States, Mexico, Central America and South America are home to a wide range of tropical and temperate species that have been brought into cultivation. Most of them are very long blooming and will keep your garden full of hummingbirds (the primary pollinators of the native sages) all season long. Unlike their Old World cousins, most of the natives need ‘lean’ (not very fertile), fast draining soil and generally don't like clay.

My Favorite Native Salvia include:

  • Salvia Raspberry Delight® - a High Country Gardens Introduction that has proven to be one of the most cold hardy selections making it growable across much of the western US where winter temperatures are USDA zone 5 and warmer. Raspberry Delight blooms all summer with big raspberry-red flowers. And its foliage has a wonderful sweet herbal fragrance as well.
  • Salvia 'Cold Hardy Pink' - a good, cold hardy variety with fantastic bright pink flowers all summer long.
  • Saliva reptans Autumn Sapphire - a dwarf reptans species from West Texas that has proven to be USDA zone 5 cold hardy. S. reptans blooms for least six weeks from September into early October and provides hummingbirds with essential late season nectar as they fly south to their warm winter habitats.
  • Salvia 'Ultra Violet' - a fantastic, everblooming, cold hardy hybrid with violet-pink flowers.
  • Salvia ‘Maraschino’ – just like the cherry in your ‘Shirley Temple’, this brightly colored cultivar has excellent cold hardiness and does best with some afternoon shade. Hummingbirds by the dozens!
  • Salvia pachyphylla 'Blue Flame' - This a selected, large flowered form of the little known native species from the mountains of southern California. It blooms all summer with showy bright blue flowers poking out from showy bright violet-pink bracts. A hummingbird magnet!

Rajesh-Jyothiswaran-_May-night-Salvia-TXCustomer Photo of Salvia 'May Night.'

Well Drained Soils are Best

Typically, this group of Salvia prefers ‘lean’ (not very fertile), well-drained soils.  They will grow in dry clay conditions in arid climates but will rot out in clay soils where there is more than about 15 to 18” of precipitation annually.  I’ve been working on breeding and selecting for improved cold hardiness in the High Country Garden’s native Salvia introductions.

Salvia | Meadow Sage

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Text and Photos by Founder and Chief Horticulturist David Salman.