Monday, February 25, 2013

Tropical sage...a wise addition to the Southern garden

Tropical sage, a popular Southern plant

February 25, 2013

I’m waiting for hummingbirds to discover my tropical sage plants. 

Last fall, my daughter removed a large patch of the pretty, scarlet-colored flowers from one of her garden beds but before tossing the lot into her compost pile, she put a couple aside for me.  I accepted her gift gratefully and placed the small starts in my kitchen garden where I hoped their bright red blooms would attract butterflies, bees and especially hummingbirds.  Since I spend considerable time in the kitchen preparing food and cleaning up afterwards, I like to reward myself with pretty views to gaze out upon from the kitchen window.  

In the months since, the flower stalks have grown tall and the plants have sprawled broadly.  Unlike Amber’s yard where garden space is limited, I have plenty of room for plants to expand – if they’re the right plants.  Rather than installing more exotics that look lovely but turn out to be incredibly hard to control or eradicate, I’m on the lookout for Florida-friendly additions that provide beauty and attract wildlife without the need for much attention.  Tropical sage fits the bill.  I haven’t noticed any hummers yet but I’m sure their arrival is just a matter of time.

Although its botanic name is Salvia coccinea, tropical sage is a popular southern plant with many monikers.  Common names include Texas sage, scarlet sage, blood sage, hummingbird sage and red salvia.  Salvias are the largest genus of the mint family and tropical sage (like all mints) has square stems, aromatic leaves and small flowers displayed in a whorl around upright stems.  The tubular red flowers, which attract so much attention from nectar-seeking wildlife, are about an inch long and perfectly shaped to accommodate a hummingbird’s long, pointy bill.  

I’ve planted my tropical sage in a flowerbed where I’m also growing a purple sage, orange cosmos and a few red, pink and white pentas.  Over time, I’ve enhanced the soil in that garden with compost, peat and lavish amounts of grass clipping mulch.  While tropical sage abides such soil amendments, it can also prosper in less enhanced settings.  As long as it gets a few hours of shade every day, it will grow in dry, sandy spots as well as rich loam. 

The blooms, which continue year round except during freezes, are more profuse if the plants receive at least some irrigation.  However, even when ignored completely, tropical sage will survive.  It just won’t thrive like it will when given a little attention.

From a lazy gardener’s point of view (mine!), one of tropical sage’s many assets is its ability to self-seed.  With her limited garden space, my daughter doesn’t find this characteristic as endearing as I do.  In her yard, salvia coccinea volunteers kept popping up and taking over spots where she would have preferred to grow vegetables and other herbs.  Although Amber appreciated seeing all the fluttering wildlife the plants attracted, the self-seeding Florida wildflowers simply took up too much valuable real estate. 

Unlike Amber, I’m ready for Florida-friendly, wildlife-attracting, low-maintenance plants like tropical sage to overtake garden space.  I wouldn’t mind in the least if the two plants my daughter gave me blazed a scarlet path beyond the garden and into other planting beds.  I wouldn’t even object if they continued spreading their way around the lake.  

One of these days, a hummingbird will discover the tubular red blooms in my kitchen garden.  When it does, the tiny bird will be happy to have found a new source of life-sustaining nectar.  I’ll be happy too because we’ll both be nourished - one by nectar, the other by fluttering moments of beauty.  

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