Continuing the series of aromatic herbs I am now going to write about what has become one of Australia’s favorite plant genera. Five years ago there were not many of us growing a wide range of Salvia and the number of cultivars were few. Indeed in stark contrast to the previous two genera, there are as many if not more species of Salvia than cultivars.
An interesting thing about salvia is the fact that every color is represented in the flowers. Almost all other genera are usually missing the gene of one of the major color groups. There are no true red Lavender, no yellow Rosemary, no blue Rose, nor blue grevillea, no blue Hellebore or true yellow Hebe.
The genus is wide spread with species indigenous to every continent but Australia and Antartica. It is the largest genus in the mint (Lamiaceae) family and consists of 900+ species of annuals, perennials and evergreen shrubs that grow in full desert sun to moist woodland environments. The majority of the species are native to the North and Central Americas.
The common name for the genus is sage, and while sage (Salvia officinalis) is a renowned culinary herb, other species in the genus also have culinary and medicinal applications. Then there is the species loved by our alternative community; Salvia divinorum. This is a plant that has been banned in Australia and parts of the US due to its use as a hallucinogenic drug. Sell Salvia at any mainstream market and you will get at least one request for this plant.
The genus name is derived from the Latin salvare, meaning to heal or save.For the botanists amongst us the family is a member of the Division; Magnoliophyta. class; Magnoliopsida, the order; Lamiales. The family consists of more than 180 genera and 3500 species. These are from all parts of the world with the greatest number coming from the Mediterranean. There are several genera in Australia, with the most widely known being Westringia (the native Rosemary) and Prostanthera (the native Mint Bush).
Like lavender, most salvia like full sun, good air movement and excellent drainage. There are many species though that are more tolerant of wet and humid conditions indeed many forms even prefer them. Although they are not readily available here in Australia.
Another interesting corollary between Lavender, Rosemary and Salvia is the way they are viewed in the community. The passionate lavender people are mostly commercial growers and meet annually to review the national and international trends in the use of lavender and lavender products. There aren’t any real Rosemary groups but Salvia has its own set of passionate devotees. In Victoria we have the Salvia Study group. This is a group of plant growers that have a strong fascination for this colourful herb.
Basically there are two types of Salvia: The ornamental and the culinary forms. The prime culinary form is Salvia officinalis. This plant has olive green leaves with a slightly leather appearance. It has several cultivars that are mostly selected on the foliage colour and generally have the same ‘flavour’. It is a strong herb that is popular in southern European and Mexican food. The flavour is quite savory and has been used for many years. Common Sage also has many medicinal benefits and like most herbs helps with digestion and overall body health. However it has a particular benefit in relaxing the nervous system allowing for better concentration and clear thinking. Taken as a tea it is also beneficial in easing symptoms of the common cold and most strains of the flu.
The other culinary forms are mainly used in teas and salads and are selected for their strong foliage flavour. Their common names tell you what the flavour is. Salvia dorisiana and Salvia elegans are two of the most common. Commonly called Fruit Salad Sage and Pineapple Sage they both are excellent in making herbal teas (or infusions). Their particular flavours mix well with mints and lemon flavoured herbs. There are many other fruity forms of Salvia which all makes tasty herbal teas or when chilled and mixed with soda water makes refreshing summer drinks.
The fruity forms also make attractive garden shrubs with large light green foliage and eye catching red flowers. They are quick growers that respond well to an annual hard prune in late spring. Most flower well in late summer to late autumn. These varieties all like full sun but can grow with a little bit of shade and prefer a well drained soil. They are all tolerant of moderate frosts and extended dry periods. Next month I will look at some of the ornamental forms.