Photo: Roger Foley
Move over, mums. Your status as fall's showiest bloomers has officially been usurped. The new ruling family comes from the House of Salvia. Also called sages, these bushy, fuss-free plants stand up to 8 feet tall and are crowned with spires of yellow, red, blue, purple, or pink flowers. Butterflies and humming-birds love sages. Try them and you will too.
These plants are cousins of the culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) often used to season cornbread dressing. However, except for pineapple sage, which has pineapple-scented leaves that are excellent for flavoring drinks, they are grown solely for show. Some of them start blooming in spring and continue through the fall. Others save their blooms for late summer and fall. No matter—they're all beautiful and easy to grow. Look for potted plants at your local garden center now.
If you try only one type, make it forsythia sage (S. madrensis). Named for its bright yellow flowers, forsythia sage is an imposing plant that can grow 6 to 8 feet tall and wide by the time it blooms in fall.
Sages need sun, well-drained soil, good air circulation, and room to grow. (Most get big.) Some of them are winter hardy throughout the South. Others, such as forsythia sage, will survive winter from the Lower South (USDA Zone 8) on down, provided they're not cut back severely after they finish blooming. You can neaten them up a little bit in late fall, but save major pruning for spring. Also make sure the soil doesn't stay wet in winter or your plants will rot.
If you have the space, combine sages with other fall bloomers. They look great paired with old-fashioned mums, asters, goldenrods, swamp sunflowers, sedums, ornamental grasses, or roses. Or use them to add color to your fall veggie and herb gardens.
Start New Sages From Cuttings
If certain sages aren't winter hardy in your area, one way to make sure you have them next year is to take cuttings now. Cut about 3 to 4 inches off the end of a stem just below a pair of leaves. Strip off these lowest leaves, and then dip the cut end in rooting powder. Stick the cutting into a pot filled with moist potting soil, and place it near a bright window. The cutting should root in several weeks. You can transplant it to the garden after the last spring frost in your area.