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What is the difference between sage and salvia

What is the difference between sage and salvia?

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Sage and salvia are often used interchangeably, but there are surprising differences between the two. 

Sages are well-known and useful herb plants that work hard. You often see different types of culinary sage in fancy cooking magazines, on vinegar bottles, and with turkey dishes.

But when you mention “Salvia,” many people might not know what you’re talking about. They might think of gardening instead, where they picture red tube-shaped flowers that attract hummingbirds.

The truth is, all SAGES are actually SALVIAS.

Throughout history, we’ve used the word “sage” for cooking and medicine, and “salvia” for the more decorative kinds of these plants.

However, Salvia is the scientific name for all of them. So, even if you call it something like “Tricolor Garden Sage” in everyday conversation, its real name will always be “Salvia officinalis ‘Tricolor’.”

What is the difference between sage and salvia
The truth is, all SAGES are actually SALVIAS

Ornamental Salvias

Let’s delve into the enchanting world of ornamental Salvias, particularly focusing on Pt. Sal Sage. It’s a common practice to categorize these exquisite flowering shrubs under the general term “Salvias,” and in this discussion, we’ll explore these stunning members.

What is Ornamental Salvias?

Ornamental Salvias refer to a group of Salvia plant varieties that are primarily grown for their aesthetic qualities rather than for culinary or medicinal purposes. These Salvia varieties are cultivated and appreciated for their attractive and often showy flowers, foliage, and overall appearance. Ornamental Salvias are commonly found in gardens, landscapes, and as potted plants, enhancing outdoor spaces with their vibrant colors and unique characteristics.

The count of known Salvias seems to continually expand, and at present, there are estimated to be between 800 and 900 distinct varieties within this group. However, not all of them achieve the coveted status of “must-haves” in the world of ornamental gardening. Some are restricted to flourishing only in tropical climates, while others boast flowers that are so petite they can be easily missed, or they may have sparse foliage and less-than-ideal growth patterns.

In our own gardening experiences, we’ve cultivated around two hundred different Salvia varieties, and from these, we’ve carefully curated a selection of our tried-and-true favorites. These chosen Salvias are the cream of the crop, and we’re delighted to offer them to you, allowing you to bring the beauty and elegance of these remarkable plants into your own garden or landscape.

Ornamental Salvias
Ornamental Salvias

How to choose?

Choosing the right ornamental Salvia for your garden depends on a few factors, including your climate zone and color preferences.

Many people first encounter ornamental Salvias in the form of annual varieties available in cell packs and garden centers during spring.

Two common examples are Salvia splendens, originally known as Scarlet Sage but now available in various colors, and Salvia farinacea, also called Victoria Sage, typically purple but occasionally white, and sometimes featuring both colors on the same plant.

It’s important to note that both S. splendens and S. farinacea are technically tender perennials. While S. farinacea can survive milder winters in Zone 8, it may struggle in hot summer conditions. Victoria Sage, on the other hand, is a fantastic long-blooming option but may not withstand harsh winters.

For a hardier option, consider Indigo Spires Salvia, a hybrid of Victoria Sage (S. farinacea x longispica). This large shrub can tolerate Zone 7 and grows up to four feet tall, featuring impressively long wands with bluish-purple flowers, some reaching up to 18 inches in length. Indigo Spires Salvia thrives in cooler coastal climates during the summer months.

Scarlet Sage
Scarlet Sage

Frost Tender Salvias

Many Salvias that you’ll find readily available are quite sensitive to frost and can only thrive as annuals unless you’re in a frost-free region. Some of these include:

  • Salvia Discolor, also known as Andean Silver Leaf Sage, with nearly black flowers.
  • S. buchanii or Velvet Sage, boasting showy maroon blossoms.
  • S. cacaliifolia or Guatemalan Leaf Sage, known for its luxurious blue flowers and various cultivars.
  • S. coccinea or Texas Hummingbird Sage, which comes in vibrant red and pink varieties.
  • S. confertiflora or Red Velvet Sage, a late-blooming species with fuzzy orange flowers.
  • S. divinorum or Diviner’s Sage, recognized for its white flowers and electric blue bracts, often used for religious purposes.
  • S. dorsiana or Fruit Scented Sage, offering heavenly fruit-scented foliage.
  • S. gesneraeflora with large scarlet flowers.
  • S. guaranitica or Black and Blue Sage, featuring long blue flowers.
  • S. mexicana and its varieties, such as Limelight, known for flirtatious chartreuse bracts and blue flowers.
  • S. patens or Gentian Sage, with impressive 3-inch-long blue flowers.
  • S. Van Houttii or Brazilian Sage, sporting 2-inch-deep mahogany-red tubes.

These tropical beauties typically prefer afternoon shade in hot climates and tend to have a large and somewhat untidy growth habit, regardless of how they are cultivated. They are often considered best for the back of the garden border due to their lack of sturdiness. To showcase them at their best, you can plant them closely with other large perennials to provide support. While these frost-tender Salvias are undeniably beautiful, they require specific conditions and may not thrive in many regions. As a result, it’s often more practical to focus on Salvias that are adaptable to a wider range of climates.

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What is the difference between sage and salvia
Frost Tender Salvias

Zone 8-11 Salvias

In Zones 8-11, you’ll discover several ornamental Salvias that thrive well. Here are a few noteworthy examples:

  • S. apiana (White Sage): This evergreen plant is significant in Native American religious practices. It’s a slow-growing, candelabra-shaped shrub with waxy, almost white leaves. The plant itself reaches about three feet in height, and with its somewhat plain flower stems, it can extend up to five feet. White Sage is sometimes referred to as Bee Sage because it attracts bees with its small white flowers.
  • S. aurea (24 Karat Gold Sage): This Salvia stands out with its uniquely colored golden-brown flowers, making it a captivating addition to any garden.
  • S. brandegii (Island Black Sage): This Salvia is a substantial plant with striking light blue flowers. It’s important to note that it can become quite large, so it’s best suited for areas with ample space.
  • S. canariensis (Canary Island Sage): If you want to make a bold statement in your garden, this Salvia is an excellent choice. It grows up to five feet tall and can spread up to ten feet in width. Its profuse pink-bracted flowers and large, woolly, arrowhead-shaped leaves make it an eye-catching addition to your landscape.
  • S. clevelandii: S. clevelandii “Gracias,” or Gracias Sage, is a crossbreed involving Cleveland Sage but has a more spreading, ground-covering growth pattern compared to the upright shrub form. These plants, whether pruned into specimens or allowed to naturally fill larger spaces, offer valuable options for landscaping and gardening.
  • S. dolomitica (South African Sage): This variety features pale lavender flowers complemented by eye-catching maroon bracts.
  • S. leucophylla (Point Sal Sage): Point Sal Sage is an impressive Salvia, reaching towering heights of six feet and sprawling over ten feet or more in width. It graces your garden with graceful pink pom-pom blooms.
  • S. elegans (Pineapple Sage): Pineapple Sage is a herbaceous plant that typically survives Zone 8 winters. In regions with mild summer temperatures, it can grow quite large. However, in Zone 8, it usually stays under four feet when flowering. This Salvia is renowned for its abundance of long, lipstick-red tubes that hummingbirds find irresistible. While its leaves emit a fruity scent, this aroma doesn’t transfer into the flavor. Pineapple Sage flowers can be used as an attractive culinary garnish.
  • S. leucantha (Mexican Bush Sage): This herbaceous ornamental plant produces long spikes of velvety flowers. It sports a purple calyx and white flowers. Additionally, there’s a variation called All Purple Mexican Bush Sage, which boasts both a purple calyx and purple flowers. Both varieties make a striking impact in the landscape and generally reach a height of about five feet. In Zone 8, they die back to the ground during winter, but in milder zones, they benefit from being sheared to the ground either in winter or late spring/early summer. Their crown gradually expands in diameter each year and doesn’t require dividing.
  • Anthony Parker Sage (S. leucantha “Anthony Parker”): This Salvia is a hybrid between Mexican Bush Sage and Pineapple Sage, possibly a bit more delicate. It boasts slender, dark purple flowers, adding an elegant touch to your garden.
  • Grape Scented Sage (S. melissodora): This deciduous shrub grows to be five to six feet tall and features small yet captivating light purple flowers that bloom from late summer until the arrival of frost. The leaves can be used to make a refreshing tea, and the flowers have a remarkable flavor reminiscent of Grape Kool-Aid.
  • Black Sage (S. mellifera): Black Sage is a sprawling bush with brilliant green leaves, often extending to a diameter of 15 feet or more while reaching a height of about three to four feet. It can withstand frost down to approximately 12 degrees Fahrenheit. This California native plant has pom-pom-like flowers similar to Cleveland Sage but in a lighter shade. Black Sage is among the earliest bloomers in the garden, typically starting in late January and continuing for about six weeks. It doesn’t require frequent pruning or dividing. While highly aromatic and sticky, it serves as an excellent choice for covering hillsides.
  • Baby Salvia (S. microphylla): This Salvia has a unique stem growth pattern, with new branches displaying alternating variegated patterns of black and white. It features vibrant red flowers and glossy green leaves, making it an attractive addition to your garden.
  • Wild Watermelon: This variety offers both fragrance and abundant pink blooms that are highly appealing to gardeners and hummingbirds alike. It belongs to the S. microphylla group, which also includes Dennis’ Pink and Hot Lips. These varieties are slightly more tender compared to the S. greggii group, which encompasses Maraschino Cherry Salvia, Raspberry Royal Salvia, Lavender Autumn Sage, Teresa’s Texas Sage, Salmon Texas Sage, Variegated Autumn Sage, and Wild Thing Autumn Sage. Some reports suggest that the S. microphylla group can tolerate Zone 7, while the S. greggii group may withstand conditions as cold as Zone 6. They all bloom from spring until fall and benefit from pruning in the summer (especially in areas with temperatures over 90 degrees) and late fall.
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What is the difference between sage and salvia
Zone 8-11 Salvias

These evergreen shrubs typically reach heights between two and four feet. They come in a variety of colors, ranging from bicolor oranges and yellows to deep reds and pastel peaches.

  • In regions where temperatures stay below 90 degrees, they provide continuous flowering until frost or early winter.
  • In hotter areas, they display a spectacular spring and fall bloom but should be pruned in the summer and again in the winter once their bloom has finished to maintain a well-shaped shrub.

Some, like Maraschino Cherry and other S. greggii varieties, can be used as seasonings, preferably dried, and their flowers make delightful additions to salads and garnishes. Variegated Autumn Sage is especially effective at brightening up partially shady areas in your garden.

Zone-7 Salvias

  • Indigo Spires Salvia: While primarily rated for Zone 7, Indigo Spires Salvia can benefit from a little protection during severe winters. It’s a hybrid known for its tall stature, growing up to four feet with striking bluish-purple flowers. In hotter climates, it thrives along the coast where it’s cooler.
  • Mexican Blue Sage (S. chamaedryoides): This evergreen plant stands at about two feet tall and four feet wide, featuring small leaves and electric blue flowers. It’s particularly water-efficient and complements other colors in your garden, especially pinks and blues.
  • Black and Blue Sage (S. guarantitica): With its stunningly colored flowers, this Salvia variety thrives when it receives a bit of shade, especially in hot summer regions.
  • S. greggii group: While these Salvias are often rated for Zone 8, there have been reports of them thriving nicely in Zone 7 or even as cold as Zone 6. This group includes Maraschino Cherry Salvia, Raspberry Royal Salvia, Lavender Autumn Sage, Teresa’s Texas Sage, Salmon Texas Sage, Variegated Autumn Sage, and Wild Thing Autumn Sage. They offer a range of colors and are great for continuous blooming from spring to fall.
  • Bog Sage (S. uliginosa): Despite its name, Bog Sage doesn’t actually thrive in boggy conditions. In fact, if it’s kept too wet, it can become leggy. This Salvia grows tall, with four-foot reddish and reedy stems reminiscent of miniature bamboo. Its prolific true blue flowers bloom throughout the summer. To encourage sturdy stems and continuous bloom, consider cutting it back to about a foot tall around midway through the growing season when temperatures start to rise.

These Salvia varieties offer a diverse range of colors, sizes, and growth patterns, making them suitable choices for various climates within Zones 7-11.

What is the difference between sage and salvia
Zone-7 Salvias

Cold Weather Salvias

There are several cold-weather Salvia varieties that perform well in a wide range of climates, from Zone 4 to Zone 10. Here are some noteworthy options:

  • Salvia x superba (S. nemerosas): These hardy Salvias come in various varieties, including Blue Queen, Rose Queen, and May Night (which was named the 1997 Perennial Plant of the Year). They typically grow between 18 inches and 36 inches in height and produce blooms in early spring and again in the fall. These Salvia x superba varieties are adaptable to a range of temperatures.
  • Salvia pratensis (Blue Meadow Clary): This Salvia features dark green, pebbled leaves close to the ground, similar to those mentioned earlier. However, it has a looser growth pattern with fewer but longer flower spikes. S. transylvanica is quite similar to S. pratensis and equally attractive.
  • Salvia sclarea (Clary Sage): While classified as a biennial, Clary Sage often lives longer than two years. It has medicinal properties and has even been used as a commercial additive to tobacco. The flowers are white with lilac markings, and the variety S. turkestanica features darker pink flowers, making it more appealing. These biennial Salvias have large, broad, low-growing leaves, sometimes reaching over eight inches across. Flowering typically occurs in the second year, but it can sometimes be extended by removing the flower stalk before seed sets.

One of the primary attractions of ornamental Salvias is their ability to attract hummingbirds due to the tubular shape of their flowers. Salvias share this feature with other plants like Penstemon, Musa (Banana), Aquilegia (Columbine), Leonitis ocymifolia (Lion’s Tail), Bouvardia, Loeselia, Ocotillo, Beloperone, Gray California Fuchsia, and Hummingbird Flower.

Salvias offer a remarkable range of colors, shapes, and hardiness levels. While red varieties like Pineapple Sage and Texas Hummingbird Sage are well-known for attracting hummingbirds, it’s worth noting that almost all Salvia varieties, including purples like velvety purple S. leucantha, can also be frequented by these vibrant birds.

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Cold Weather Salvias
Cold Weather Salvias

Culinary Sages

Culinary Sages come in various forms, each with its unique flavor, appearance, and folklore:

  • Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis): This well-known sage is hardy from Zone 5 through Zone 11. It blooms profusely for about three to four weeks in the spring, making it one of the most attractive Salvias when planted in rows or blocks. Garden Sage can grow up to three feet tall and features bluish-purple flowers. After the bloom is finished, prune it back beyond the flowers, taking care not to cut into wood without new growth. The flowers serve as an appealing garnish for salads, butters, soft cheeses, and ice cubes.
  • Variations of Culinary Garden Sage: There are several variations of Garden Sage, each with its unique characteristics:
    • Golden Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis icterina): This variety has irregularly variegated green and gold leaves.
    • Purple Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis purpurea): Its new leaves are dark purple, turning soft green with age.
    • Tricolor Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis tricolor): This sage has leaves variegated in cream, green, and pink.
    • Berggarten Sage (Salvia officinalis Berggarten): Known for having the largest leaves among Garden Sages.
    • Dwarf Garden Sage (Salvia officinalis minum): A compact variety suitable for smaller spaces.
    • Window Box Garden Sage: The smallest of all Garden Sages, it’s particularly well-suited for container gardening. All these variations have a similar flavor profile. Golden and Tricolor Sages may be slightly less winter-hardy than common Garden Sage.
  • Cleveland Sage: While it’s primarily grown as an ornamental plant, Cleveland Sage is also culinary. However, it has a very potent flavor, so it should be used sparingly in cooking.
  • Greek Sage (Salvia fruticosa): The sage commonly found in spice jars at the market is Greek Sage, not Garden Sage (S. officinalis). Greek Sage is hardy in Zones 8-11 and has a distinctive twisted appearance with exceptional flavor. It can be grown as an annual and typically reaches about three feet in height each season.

These culinary Salvias offer a range of flavors and can be used in various culinary applications, from garnishing dishes to adding depth to savory recipes.

Culinary Sages
Culinary Sages

Medicinal Uses

  • Historically, S. officinalis (Garden Sage) has been highly regarded for its medicinal properties. In Chinese culture, it was valued even more than black tea for its healing benefits.
  • Sage tea, made by steeping one teaspoon of dried S. officinalis (any variety) in one cup of hot water for about 10 minutes, has been used as a gargle for sore throats and as a digestive aid.
  • Sage is currently under investigation for its potential to alleviate certain menopausal symptoms, particularly hot flashes, due to its natural estrogen content.
  • Sage contains numerous potent active compounds, some of which exhibit antioxidant properties.
  • While sage has medicinal benefits, it’s essential to consult with a qualified practitioner before using it, especially if using sage essential oil or alcohol extracts internally.
  • Pregnant women should avoid taking sage essential oil and alcohol extracts internally.

The name “Salvia” itself is no coincidence, as it comes from the Latin word “salvere,” meaning “to be saved.” The diverse range of Salvias and the many ways they enhance our lives make them truly wondrous plants to have in our gardens.

What is the difference between sage and salvia
Sage tea

The bottom line

All sages are salvias, but not all salvias are sages.

What is the difference between sage and salvia?

Sage and salvia are both terms used to refer to plants in the genus Salvia. However, there is a slight difference in how the terms are used.

  • Sage is typically used to refer to culinary or medicinal herbs in the genus Salvia. These plants are often small and have inconspicuous flowers.
  • Salvia is used to refer to a wider range of plants in the genus Salvia, including both culinary and ornamental varieties. Ornamental salvias can be much larger than culinary sages and have a wider variety of flower colors and shapes.

Here is a table that summarizes the key differences between sage and salvia:

Feature Sage Salvia
Common use Culinary or medicinal herb Ornamental plant
Size Typically small Can be large
Flower color Often inconspicuous Wide variety of colors and shapes

Examples of culinary sages:

  • Garden sage (Salvia officinalis)
  • Mexican sage (Salvia leucantha)
  • Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans)

Examples of ornamental salvias:

  • Bee balm (Monarda didyma)
  • Blackcurrant sage (Salvia x sylvestris ‘Blackcurrant’)
  • Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia)

It is important to note that there is some overlap between the two categories. For example, some ornamental salvias, such as blue salvia (Salvia azurea), are also used in cooking.

All sages are salvias, but not all salvias are sages
All sages are salvias, but not all salvias are sages

Overall, the best way to tell the difference between sage and salvia is to consider the plant’s size, flower color, and intended use. If you are unsure whether a plant is a sage or a salvia, it is always best to consult a plant identification guide.

Author Linh Vu
Linh Vu

“Herbs are the friend of the physician and the pride of cooks.” ~ Charlemagne.