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Gardening Column
by Marjorie Harris
April 18, 1999

Two plants are rapidly climbing up to the top of my Favourites List: Salvias and Solidagos. The latter are the much-maligned goldenrods (often considered weeds or allergenic plants--quite untrue in both cases); the former are too often considered as common annuals confined to pots and holes in the border. This is no longer true for either plant. Each family has hardy North America natives in its genus and the new cultivars now being recognized make this an exciting year for both these plants.

We usually think of salvias in terms of the bright blue annuals such as S. viridis (syn horminum) and S. farinacae ‘Victoria'. But there's a lot more to salvias than meet the eye. There are 900 species and they've even got entire books devoted to them (the latest by Betsy Clebsch, Timber Press). No more praise can be rendered unto a genus. I was at a conference earlier this year and there was one collector whose garden contained nothing but salvias. It was in bloom for three seasons and looked wonderful.

In the garden most salvias will need a sunny, well-drained site with humusy soil are easily grown from seed. All will require deadheading for continued bloom. Leave the perennial plants alone in the autumn, and don't cut back too early in spring. Give them generous lashings of water at the beginning and then just let them survive on their own.

What sold me on using a lot more salvias was the introduction of S. verticillata ‘Purple Rain' a few years ago. It's a sensational plant of indigo blue flower clusters framed by deep green leaves. I haven't got a huge amount of light in my garden and most salvias do like lots of sun. This plant, however, not only bloomed, it bloomed on and on and on for weeks. I had it in front of a golden elder, Sambucus racemosa ‘Goldfinch', and the two are made for each other. I whack the elder back practically to the ground each spring to keep the golden colour and the size manageable. The salvia gets deadheaded regularly.

That led to trying a really gigantic form called S. guaranitica. ‘Purple Majesty' which reached 2M and stuck it next to a hybrid form of goldenrod called Solidago ‘Golden Wings'. This is a combination of deep purple and intense yellow, dramatic enough to be drop dead gorgeous in any border. The salvia doesn't seem to be making a reappearance this year but I don't care.

If it insists on being an annual here, fine I'll keep on buying it. But, like a twit, I didn't take a cutting of the salvia last fall. It would be have been so easy to keep a few small pieces going in a bright windowsill. All it needed was a pot of sand and some watering. This is true of most salvias: they are really easy to propagate.

S. azurea var. ‘Grandiflora' is a native with real presence since it grows to 2M. Purple sage, A. officinalis, comes back every year in this garden and is an valuable addition year round. And then there are all the other lovely sages including a golden and tricoloured form. I think they're among the best container plants going.

A couple of years ago the Perennial Plant Association deemed S. nemerosa x ‘May Night' as plant of the year and deservedly so. It's a compact plant, 60 cm high which blooms any time from May to July. Other easy-to-find cultivars are: ‘East Friesland' a violet-blue will bloom right into autumn with headheading; ‘Blue Hill' grows to 40cm; ‘Schneehuegel has white stalks 60cm high. You can find a salvia in a wide range of colours including brilliant red, magenta, pink, all hues of blue and purple.

But you won't find it in yellow. For that goldenrod is the answer. This is a glorious plant and I let it run around my garden just to attract butterflies and bees. I believe the new garden varieties will become indispensable to gardeners. They are not anywhere near as rampant as the wild form, and they have a variety of heights and bloom forms that make them perfect for the late summer and autumn garden.

‘Golden Wings' for instance has panicles of medium yellow flowerheads and grows to 1.8M. ‘Golden Fleece' forms clumps has lance-shaped leaves and grows to 90cm high; ‘Laurin' is a dwarf form with golden yellow flowers that sit stiffly upright. They are all beauties.

You'll find no pictures but lots of information about these plants in these catalogues: Lost Horizons, R. R. #1, Acton, On L7J 2L7, 519-853-3085; losthor@stn.net $3. Rainforest Gardens, 13139 - 224th St., Maple Ridge, BC V4R 2P6; info@rainforest-gardens.com $4. Marjorie Harris is Editor-in-Chief of Gardening Life; her most recent book is Pocket Gardening (HarperCollins). Visit her web site: www.marjorieharris.com

199 Albany Avenue, Toronto, Ont. M5R 3C7 florana@interlog.com fax: 416-531-3774 phone: 531-3774 Marjorie Harris is working on a social history of native plants of Canada and the United States. this is the end

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