Bold Salvias for Pollinators

Salvia leucantha is a late-season bloomer with long, purplish wands of flowers visited by hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies.

Many Salvia species and varieties, whether annual or perennial, are tall, bold, and bloom continuously throughout summer or fall. Their flowers are favored by most pollinators, especially hummingbirds. An additional inviting fact: quite a few species are North American natives.

I have grown salvias in my garden for over 30 years, and annually plant favorites while seeking new varieties each year. When choosing new salvias, I look for brightly colored, low-maintenance options known to attract pollinators. Most require full sun, average soil with good drainage, and occasional deadheading. With good care, they should perform admirably into the fall months.

Mexican Bush Sage

Santa Barbara Mexican bush sage is a popular purple-flowered form.

Expect Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha) to start blooming in late summer or early fall. The Mexican native has silvery strappy leaves, an upright habit, and wands of fuzzy flowers of purple, magenta, or silvery white. The plants thrive in warm weather and will tolerate moderate drought once established. A common variety with strong color is the purple-flowered ‘Santa Barbara’.

Salvia Rockin’® Blue Suede Shoes

One Rockin® Blue Suede Shoes plant will fill a large pot. (Image thanks to Proven Winners®)

The award-winning Salvia Rockin’® Blue Suede Shoesfrom Proven Winners is a sensational cultivated hybrid of the 4-5 foot blue anise sage (Salvia guaranitica), another plant worth growing. The cultivar has won awards and accolades for one good reason; its solid garden performance. The bushy, 3-foot plants bloom nonstop in hot summer weather and will continue to flower until frost. No deadheading is required of these self-cleaning plants.

Tall Scarlet Sage

The flowers of ‘Van Houttei’ scarlet sage are a darker shade of red than the species. (Image by Jessie Keith)

The old-fashioned Van Houtte Scarlet Sage (Salvia splendens ‘Van Houttei’, Zones 7-9, 3-4 feet) was first introduced in the 1800s and continues to be planted today. Its flowers are darker red than average, and the stems are taller than most scarlet sage varieties. Provide full sun and deadhead regularly for nonstop summer flowering.

Tall Orange Sage

Skyscraper™ Orange is a personal favorite. (Image thanks to the Ball® Seed Company)

Here is a salvia I’d like to see more of in gardens: Skyscraper™ Orange Salvia (S. buchananii x S. splendens Skyscraper™ Orange, Zones 10-11, 2-2.5 feet) from the Ball® Seed Company. It is a real beauty with spires of orange-red flowers that bloom all summer and fall. The blooms are profuse on the 2019 Classic City Award winner (University of Georgia garden trials). I try to plant one every year!

Texas Sage

A ruby-throated hummingbird visits the flowers of Texas sage.

The Texas and Mexican native Texas sage (Salvia greggii, Zones 6-10, 2-3 feet) is a bushy perennial with bright red flowers first appearing in the late summer. Bees and hummingbirds enjoy the blooms. There are many cultivated varieties available in traditional red as well as pink and white hues. A favorite is the choice, ever-so-lovely Teresa’s Texas Sage (Salvia greggii ‘Teresa’) with its pale pink and white flowers.

As the plant’s origins suggest, Texas sage tolerates hot, dry weather once the plants are established in the garden. Excess soil moisture can kill them, so plant yours on high ground.

Pineapple Sage

Golden Delicious pineapple sage (background) has bright fragrant foliage all summer and brilliant red fall flowers (inset). (Image thanks to Proven Winners®)

Golden Delicious pineapple sage (Salvia elegans ‘Golden Delicious’) has the benefits of delightfully colorful foliage through summer and spikes of scarlet flowers in the fall. Expect migrating hummingbirds to visit the blooms. The unflagging plants thrive in hot summer weather, and the decorative leaves smell of minty pineapple.

Wendy’s Wish Sage

Wendy’s Wish (Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’, Zones 9-10, 3-4 feet) has long, slender stems of tubular, magenta-pink flowers. It is a favorite in my garden and invites hummingbirds and bees by the dozens. I place mine in the back of the border alongside my favorite tiger-striped canna, ‘Striata‘.

Salvia and Pollinators

A black swallowtail acrobatically feeds on the flowers of a Texas sage.

All flowering sages are pollinator-friendly. Salvia flowers are most favored by bees and hummingbirds because their blooms are easily landed upon by visiting bees or fed upon by hovering hummingbirds. Nonetheless, the occasional butterfly may also manage to visit the flowers for nectar (image above).

Any of these salvias will grow beautifully in a sunny location with sharply drained, average to fertile soil amended with Natural & Organic Black Gold Garden Compost Blend. Their imposing heights make them most suitable as back-of-the-border plants or specimens in large pots. All mix beautifully with tall, airy ornamental grasses. Deadhead plants as their blooms begin to fade, and enjoy.

Summer Color by Mike Darcy

With the cool and rainy wet spring that we had here in the Pacific Northwest, most plants seemed to be about two weeks behind what would have been their ‘normal’ schedule. The weather delayed many gardeners from doing what would be some of their early spring chores. Not only was the weather not conducive for working in the garden, but the soil was too wet and muddy from all the rain.  Then in May, spring arrived with warm sunny days, and it was as if plants exploded with growth and bloom. Suddenly plants were no longer two weeks behind schedule but were on schedule.

As I walk around my own garden, as well as other gardens that I have recently visited, I am in awe of all the color that I see. Most gardeners always have room for another plant and the following are some of my favorites for summer color. Many of the plants that I use for color are in containers and I have found that adding a mulch across the top of the soil is a benefit to helping the plants thrive. Black Gold Natural & Organic Garden Compost Blend is an ideal mulch to help retain moisture. Another option is Black Gold Natural & Organic Just Coir which has excellent water holding capacity.

Hardy fuchsias would have to be near the top of the list for summer color. There is such a wide variety to choose from with size and color of the flower and the growth habit of the plant. Some will get quite tall, often up to six feet or more in one season, while the height of many stays in a three-foot range. Some varieties will even hug the ground and grow as a ground cover. Plant tags will often say sun to shade exposure, I have found they do best with some protection from the hot afternoon sun. One of my favorites is Fuchsia ‘Debron’s Smokey Blues’.

The flowers on Abutilon ‘Red Tiger’ do not look real but look like a fine stained glass art piece. This is a shrub and in a mild northwest winter, it will survive. A large plant in full bloom is stunning.

If there was ever a plant that was a work horse for blooming, I think it would have to be the dahlia. Most dahlias will begin flowering in June and there will be non-stop bloom until frost. The color range is vast and there is almost every color except blue. The flowers are also variable in their shape as is evident by the photos. These pictures were taken last summer in the trial garden of the Portland, (OR), Dahlia Society which is located on the ground of Swan Island Dahlias in Canby, OR. These photos give a good example of the wide range of color and shape of flowers. Dahlias also make excellent cut flowers.

Our summer deck would not be complete without several containers of Salvia. Keep the flower stems picked when the blooms are gone, and many will bloom throughout the summer. Two of my favorites are Salvia ‘Black & Blue’ and Salvia ‘Amistad’. The flowers on ‘Black & Blue’ tend to be cobalt blue and ‘Amistad’ has flowers that are deep purple. Both are magnets for butterflies and hummingbirds,

Sometimes, I think it is fun to grow plants that are known not to be winter hardy, but nevertheless will perform well during the summer. The Princess Flower, (Tibouchina), is one such flower. It will bloom with purple flowers all summer and into the fall. It will not survive our winters outside and so mentally; I consider it an annual. It is fast growing and flowering can be profuse. Excellent for growing in a container.

I realize that I have barely touched the list of plants for summer color, but the above-mentioned ones should all be readily available and easy to grow. Perhaps one is new to you, and you will give it a try. Most gardeners are always trying something new. Who knows, it might just become a favorite!

About Mike Darcy

Mike lives and gardens in a suburb of Portland, Oregon where he has resided since 1969. He grew in up Tucson, Arizona where he worked at a small retail nursery during his high school and college years. He received his formal education at the University of Arizona where he was awarded a Bachelor of Science Degree in Horticulture, and though he values his formal education, he values his field-experience more. It is hard to beat the ‘hands on’ experience of actually gardening, visiting gardens, and sharing information with other gardeners. Mike has been involved with gardening communications throughout his adult life. In addition to garden writing, he has done television gardening shows in Portland, and for over 30 years he hosted a Saturday radio talk show in Portland. Now he writes, speaks, gardens and continues to share his love of gardening. To be connected to the gardening industry is a bonus in life for Mike. He has found gardeners to be among the friendliest and most caring, generous people. Consequently, many of his friends he has met through gardening.

Favorite Old & New Salvias For Flower Gardens

The red and white ‘Hot Lips’ is heat-tolerant and beautiful.

It would be difficult to come up with a group of plants that can add as much to the garden, in so many ways, as the flowering sages in the genus Salvia. Their colorful, two-lipped blooms are lovely and the many garden representatives have diverse growth habits, flower colors, fragrance (usually in the leaves), as well as being long-blooming and low-maintenance.

In addition to the above-mentioned attributes, salvias are excellent plants for a pollinator garden–attractive to bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds–and most are summer bloomers that love sunny garden spots. In my garden, the flowers are hummingbird magnets. It is delightful watching the territorial antics of these amazing birds.

Of the more than 900 species of these mints (Look for the square stems!) distributed throughout the temperate and tropical zones of the world, only several species are commonly cultivated in the garden. With so many types of salvia across the world, it stands to reason that there is lots of variation among the species and their hardiness. While many are technically perennial and perform exceptionally well in my Pacific Northwest summers, they may not survive a winter. Poor drainage can be a factor for winter survival, so I add additional perlite for increased drainage when planting them. Gran-i-Grit and coarse sand can also improve the drainage of raised gardens to enhance salvia survival.

Great Garden Salvias

‘Amistad’ has glorious purple flowers that hummingbirds love.

For me, salvias were a late addition to the plant palette in my garden, however, once I started growing them, it was as though I could not stop. I re-planted favorites each spring and always add some new varieties that I have not grown before. I discovered they were wonderful container plants, and now we always have salvias in pots on our deck. From my own experience, I have discovered what I would consider outstanding performers. Below is a listing of some of my favorites.

Introduced nearly 20 years ago, Black & Blue sage (Salvia guaranitica ‘Black & Blue’, Zones 7-10) was one of the first ones in my garden. It was recommended by the owner of a local garden center, and this salvia has become such a favorite that I plant it every year. The 4-foot plant has deep blue flowers with black calyces, hence the name ‘Black & Blue’.  Amistad salvia (Salvia guaranitica ‘Amistad’, Zones 7-10) is another good performer with deep purple flowers. It has a more compact growth habit than ‘Black & Blue’ with a final height under 3 feet. Both are excellent hummingbird attractants and will bloom all summer. They are also technically hardy to my area but very sensitive to winter moisture.

Black & Blue sage looks the part with its bicolored flowers.

Proven Winners has recently released a series of salvias in the Rockin series. I have grown several in this series, and they are excellent. My favorite is Rockin® Fuchsia (Zones 9-11) and as the name implies, the flowers are brilliant fuchsia. It is an excellent salvia for a container in a location where bright color is desired. It is also a heavy bloomer and hummingbirds love it. Another in this series that I have grown and liked is Blue Suede Shoes (Zones 9-11), which has light blue flowers with black calyces.

Rockin® Fuchsia is a very heavy summer bloomer.

For fragrance, I have not grown any better than Cleveland sage (Salvia clevelandii, Zones 8-11). This southern California native has the most aromatic leaves of almost any plant that I have grown. It has a mounding growth habit with wrinkly, leather-textured leaves. The flowers are in rounded clusters and may be lavender to purple. Plant this where people can walk by and rub or touch a leaf.

Cleveland sage is a California native with an enticing scent.

Classic garden salvia that has distinct bi-color flowers is Hot Lips littleleaf sage (Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’, Zones 7-10). The flowers are white at the base and bright red on the petals. A grouping of these in bloom makes a very striking summer display that hummingbirds cannot resist.

The flowers of ‘Hot Lips’ appear all summer.

Garden centers are continually increasing their salvia choices for customers. It was not many years ago when the selection was perhaps two to three different kinds, but today that is not the case. If you are new to growing salvias, check with other gardeners to discover what varieties perform best in your particular area. The salvias that I have mentioned are sun-loving, but there are some varieties that require at least partial shade. Others are very reliable hardy perennials.

Try some salvia plants in your garden this season. I think you will become hooked on them just as I am.

Five Bold Salvias for Summer-Long Color

Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ is tall, beautiful and blooms effortlessly.

Ask any gardener what their favorite plant is, and you are sure to get multiple answers. Some of my favorites are in the genus Salvia. It offers a wide variety of garden plants with impressive flowers.  I have many containers scattered throughout my garden, and there are more pots planted with salvias than any other flowers.  When I say Salvia, I am not just referring to common bedding types, like mealycup sage. My favorites are bold, perennial everbloomers.

Though many of the varieties that I plant are technically perennial if we have a severe winter they may not survive. My philosophy is that the plants provided me with so much enjoyment that even if they die, they were worth it. Fertile soil with good drainage is essential for potted salvias, so I use Black Gold® Natural & Organic Potting Mix and often add Black Gold® Perlite as an added insurance for good drainage. Most also require full sun to thrive and bloom to their fullest.

Here are my top five favorite bold salvias that will bloom through summer. As an added bonus, all are very attractive to hummingbirds.

Anise-Scented Sage

Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ has been a longtime favorit,  and we have had at least one pot on our deck for many years.  It begins blooming in May and continues until fall.  Often plants at garden centers will be in bud or bloom, and the flowering will continue until frost.  Cut the old flower stems back to prevent the plant from going to seed, which will increase flowering.  It is marginally winter hardy. In my yard, the stems die to the ground but often the roots will survive.

Salvia guaranitica ‘Amistad’ is similar in habit to ‘Black and Blue’ except the flowers are darker and more violet instead of blue.  It is a consistent bloomer just like ‘Black and Blue’.

Scarlet Sage

Scarlet sage comes in several colors other than red, including purple, white, pink, salmon, and peach.

The tender perennial Salvia splendens ‘Saucy Red’ has flowers that look ‘muddy red’, according to a friend visiting my garden. This might not sound like an attractive color, but the plant is spectacular when it comes into full bloom.  ‘Saucy Red’ blooms late in the season, and in my garden it does not begin flowering until late summer.  It has not been winter hardy where I live, but further south it will live from year to year. The tall ‘van houttei Peach’ is another recommended Salvia splendens variety with palest peach-pink flowers.

The Wish Salvias

Salvia ‘Embers Wish’ has brilliant blooms on tall plants. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Salvia ‘Embers Wish’ was a new salvia for me last year, and I am planting it again this year.  It has coral-red flowers that appear early and continue all summer.  It is a prolific bloomer and a vigorous plant, reaching 4-feet high. It received full sun in my garden, and the flowers did not fade.  The roots did survive the winter and new growth is now appearing. Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’ is almost exactly the same but it has violet-pink flowers.

Bolivian Hummingbird Sage

Bolivian hummingbird sage has very attractive fuzzy pink flowers. (Image by Scott Zona)

Bolivian hummingbird sage (Salvia oxophora) was also new to me last year, and the flowers look the least like a typical salvia. It also goes by the common name Fuzzy Bolivian Sage because the flowers have a fuzzy, almost velvety look.  It prefers some afternoon shade in areas where it is very hot.  It is not winter hardy and since I did not want to lose it, I took the pot into our garage during the cold weather. While the plant did not look so good when I took it outside this spring, I cut it back about half way and new healthy looking growth is appearing.

Texas Sage

Texas sage can really take high, summer heat.

Classic Texas sage (Salvia coccinea) is a tender perennial that has bright red flowers that bloom all summer and well into fall to feed migrating hummingbirds. There are also white and coral-pink varieties. Pinch back the old flowers of this heat-tolerant tender perennial to encourage more blooms.

Try any one of these salvias, and I do not think you will be disappointed. You’ll have colorful blooms all season and hummingbirds to spare.

Salvias for Fall-Migrating Hummingbirds

Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii) (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

Hummingbirds rely on the nectar of many fall-blooming salvias to assist in their late-season migration. The striking beauty, bright colors, and architectural statures of these plants also make them great for the garden. Most cultivated salvias are from Mexico and the Southwest United States, which is why pollinators migrating south are attracted to them. Their relationship is mutually beneficial; the flowers feed the birds and the birds pollinate the flowers.

Fall Salvias

Nonstop flowers of red, pink, or white appear on Salvia coccinea (Texas sage, 1-3′ tall, zones 8-10) starting in midsummer. These will continue well into frost and draw lots of hummingbirds. Deadheading old flower stalks will keep plants looking clean and attractive.

Pineapple Sage (Salvia elegans) (Image by Maureen Gilmer)

The Brazilian red velvet sage (Salvia confertiflora, 4-6′ tall, zones 9-11) blooms with delicate spikes of tiny velvety red flowers. It is also bushy and large, reaching 4 to 5’ in height. Though its flowers feed tropical hummingbirds, they are also perfect for migrating North American species. They bloom from midsummer to season’s end. Just be sure give this plant lots of space.

Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans, 3-4′ tall, zones 8-10) is an enormous, bushy sage best known for its aromatic leaves that smell of sweet pineapple. Its scarlet fall flowers make a spectacular show starting in early fall. The popular cultivar ‘Golden Delicious’ boasts outstanding golden leaf color all season long.

Autumn sage (Salvia greggii, 1-3′ tall, zones 6-9) blooms for much of the season but offers a strong fall flush of red, orange-red, white, pink, and purple flowers. Native to South Texas and Mexico, it is an essential wildflower for migrating hummingbirds. In its native form, it also looks nice in the garden. Cut late-summer stems back to keep this open but bushy perennial looking great.

Salvia leucantha 'All Purple' JaKMPM
Mexican bush sage (Salvia leucantha ‘All Purple’) (Image by Jessie Keith)

Height and elegance make Salvia leucantha (Mexican bush sage, 2-3′ tall, zones 8-10) one of the most outstanding fall salvias for large spaces. Streamers of soft, velvety flowers in shades of pink, purple, magenta, and white emerge on stems lined with silvery leaves in late summer and continue through fall. When not in bloom, its leaves still add visual flair.

Unique primrose-yellow flower color and long floral stems make forsythia sage (Salvia madrensis, 6-8’ tall, zones 7-11) a true architectural gem for the fall border. The enormous plant requires lots of room but looks great when well-placed in the landscape. Blooming starts in mid-fall and continues up until frost.

Growing Fall Salvias

All of these salvias are sun-loving and can take the heat, though they really shine in the cool of autumn. Plant them in spring for full effect, but also keep an eye out for large potted specimens to fit into late-summer beds. Before planting, amend the ground with Black Gold Garden Soil. Its mix of peat moss and compost makes for rich soil to support good growth.

Most of these salvias are tender, meaning they should be grown as annuals, but some are perennial where winters are mild. Fall-migrating hummingbirds and other pollinators will thank you for planting these gorgeous fall flowers, and your gardens will be none worse for the wear.

Salvia leucantha ‘All Purple’ appears in the background of a fall annual border, which also contains Lantana camara and Petunia Supertunia® Royal Magenta. (Image by Jessie Keith)

Garden Flowers for Hummingbirds

A hummingbird feeding on Salvia.

If there was one pollinator I would like to attract to my garden, it would be the hummingbird. It is such a fascinating bird to watch as it zooms from flower to flower and reveals its characteristic of being quite territorial. For many years, I have planted containers of Salvia ‘Black & Blue’ on our deck because this plant is a hummingbird magnet. Several years ago I tried Salvia ‘Amistad’, which is more purple than ‘Black & Blue’, and performed equally as well.


Salvia ‘Amistad’

So, in the first week of May, I purchased a mixture of Salvia as well as other plants that I have learned attract these little birds. My first step was removing the soil in the containers from last year and adding new. I have found that it is much better to start my containers with fresh potting soil, and I have found a good, effective way to use the old potting soil is to spread it on established garden beds. My potting soil of choice is Black Gold Natural & Organic Potting Soil. It contains perlite and pumice to provide good drainage and has rich organic matter to ensure that the pot does not dry out too quickly in the summer heat.

I also like to mix organic fertilizer into the soil. Usually, I use blood meal and mix it with some cottonseed meal. Using fertilizer at the time of planting helps the plants get off to a good start. Most organic fertilizers tend to be slow release, but blood meal is quite fast acting and can be used by the plant fairly quickly after application. The cottonseed meal is a slower release fertilizer, and combining the two provides both a fast and slow release of nutrients. When working with any soil and chemicals, whether organic or not, it is wise to always wear gloves.

Bonfire Begonia

Begonia Bonfire
Begonia ‘Bonfire’

While most salvias are excellent plants for attracting hummingbirds, there are many other hummingbird plants, most bearing red or orange flowers. Another particular favorite is Begonia ‘Bonfire’. I grow it in a deck basket where it is more exposed to wind and sun. In the past, I would have considered begonias rather fussy to grow and needing shade, but the orange-red-flowered ‘Bonfire’ is an exception. The plant is in sun most of the day and thrives. It blooms all summer until cool weather arrives. Hummingbirds gravitate toward this plant just like they do salvias. Since this plant is more exposed to the elements, I use Black Gold Cocoblend Potting Soil, which contains moisture-retentive coco coir.


Cuphea micropetala

Another hummingbird favorite is the sun-tolerant Cuphea. Its flower resembles a mini fuchsia. Last summer I grew Cuphea micropetala in very hot, full sun and it bloomed continuously all summer.

Do some experiments in your own garden to see which flowers are most attractive to hummingbirds. We enjoy having several containers of hummingbird favorites on our deck, so we can enjoy watching them in the evening. We also enjoy their flower food sources. When attracting any birds, be sure to also have a source of water for them. If you are fortunate, you might even find them nesting in a nearby tree or shrub.

Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’

Salvia 'Wendy's Wish'
Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’
  • This year I was introduced to a Salvia called ‘Wendy’s Wish’. I have it in a container and in a location with full sun. It began blooming in June and it is still in flower now in early November. The tall Salvia is a knockout, producing long stems of deep rose-fuchsia flowers from summer to frost.

Discovered in the Australian garden of salvia enthusiast Wendy Smith, the flowers have proven to be a hummingbird magnet. Try Salvia ‘Wendy’s Wish’ this season!