Seeing garden plants in the wild is always a pleasant, if not eye opening, experience. Familiarity is heartwarming, but one can also learn much from observing the immediate environment in which plants grow before tailoring our gardens to suit them once we return home.
I spent this past summer in Slovakia, a mountainous country situated in the hearth of Eastern Europe. It is a place of great biodiversity, and I enjoyed admiring the flora and botanizing. Although a wide array of plants is well represented, it is the wild sages (Salvia) that largely impressed me. They are ubiquitous and widespread throughout the country. Owing to their resilience and adaptability in disturbed habitats, salvias have an advantage over other species in the agrarian landscape here.
The first Salvia I encountered was Salvia nemorosa. It is common in central and southern Slovakia, growing in meadows and disturbed areas. Salvia nemorosa seems to love roadsides and a trail of purple often accompanied me on my peregrinations down to Austria or Hungary. Its flowering is a long affair, and even if it had been in bloom for some time since my arrival in early July, the flowers are still going strong as I pen these words at the end of August. The color is consistently a dark magenta-purple in the wild, although considerable variability appears in cultivation. Numerous cultivars have been selected for size and color, ranging from the diminutive blue ‘Marcus, scarcely a foot tall, to the tall pink ‘Amethyst’, towering over 3 feet.
Another cultivar worth mentioning here, but rather rare in North America is ‘Pusztaflamme’, an aberrant mutation with branched spikes of flowers that form a cone-shaped head. One presumes it must have been found in a meadow in Hungary since puszta, (pronounced ‘pussta’), is the Hungarian word for prairie. ‘Pusztaflamme’ is also known as ‘Plumosa’, a name that describes well the chenille-like texture of the flowers.
Although any Salvia nemorosa is deserving of a place in the garden, some sort are more dramatic than others. ‘Caradonna’, bred by Beate Zillmer of Zillmer Pflanzen in Uchte, Germany, is perhaps the most famous for its narrow spikes of dark purple flowers on black stems, an intense, but luminous combination.
Another common Salvia in Slovakia is a superb garden plant that I grow with fondness and ease in Canada: Salvia verticillata. This plant seems to prefer ditches, vacant lots and meadows where I saw it bursting with surprising vigor in gravel and even in dense grass. Its hardiness probably comes from its woolly leaves that retain moisture when needed and its long taproot capable of drawing water and minerals from deep down below. I had known Salvia verticillata well as a tough plant, having used it in less than ideal conditions without adverse results. Unlike other salvias, it does not need regular division or replacement, and indeed resents being moved (although recovery will happen within a year). Unsurprisingly vegetative propagation is difficult. Luckily, seeds are plentiful and easy to germinate, including the rare white form that comes true to type. For the rather special (but somewhat gloomy) all-dark cultivar ‘Purple Rain’ (which does not set seeds), basal cuttings in spring is the best option.
Fairly common in Slovakia too but only in short-grass meadows (including lawns) is Salvia pratensis. Linnaeus clearly observed the species’ habitat preference for pratensis means ‘of meadows’. Although Salvia pratensis comes in a variety of colors in gardens, the ones I saw flowering were all a particularly dark purple color. Flowering was not abundant in late summer because Salvia pratensis is a spring-blooming species. The few I saw flowering already had been mowed down and were on their second flush of flowers (an observation that I will not hesitate to put in practice). Although there was no color variation, the intensity of the color –the shade that my camera unfortunately refuses to capture as it should – impressed me. In the garden, Salvia pratensis does occur in various shades of white, pink, or purple, as well as bicolored. This species is usually propagated from seeds because clumps do not increase fast and therefore yield little divisions, but outstanding cultivars are occasionally propagated vegetatively from basal cuttings or tissue culture. One such example is the outstanding ‘Madeline’, a bicolor blue and white selection from the Dutch nurseryman and designer Piet Oudolf. Oudolf too has introduced a hybrid between Salvia nemorosa and S. pratensis (hybrids are now known as S. x sylvestris), ‘Dear Anja, in honor of his charming and eccentric wife. It is a luminous plant with blue flowers born out of dark magenta calyxes. If I were forced to choose only one salvia, ‘Dear Anja’ would probably be it. Unfortunately It is a difficult plant to propagate and has thus far remained rather elusive.
The last Salvia species I encountered on my walks in Slovakia less common and only in hedgerows and forest edges (sometimes even deep into the forest itself), was the lovely yellow Salvia glutinosa. I was surprised to see it in the shade since it has always grown well in full sunshine in my Canadian garden. Perhaps moisture is a deciding factor since Slovakia only gets half the rain we receive at home. Salvia glutinosa is a beautiful plant and one of my favorite salvias with its large heads of pale yellow flowers and its hastate foliage. It is the European answer to Japan’s Salvia koyamae, which coincidentally prefers partial shade. I look forward to trying Salvia glutinosa on the edge of our woodland, perhaps amongst Aconitum uncinatum or Actaea.
~Philippe Levesque and Eric