Plant Profile: Salvia leucocephala

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Late last summer we paid a flying visit to Dyson’s Nurseries at Great Comp near Sevenoaks in Kent. It was all rather unsatisfactory as we were short of time and had our pups Max and Millie in tow. We couldn’t take them into the garden (although I snuck in to use the loo, which was torture as I wanted a proper look) and we had to dash around the nursery like dervishes in order to stay on schedule. Fortunately it does not take either of us long to make a decision about buying a plant, so within ten minutes we had scooped up a number of them, plus a couple more as gifts for friends.

Dyson’s are legendary for their salvias. The nursery holds a collection which extends to over 250 species and cultivars. Many have scented foliage and most flower throughout the British summer and in to early winter. (My uncle’s Salvia ‘Amistad’ was still in fine fettle on Christmas Day.) Whilst perennial salvias will gaily bloom until late in the year, they are not necessarily hardy and some require winter protection.

Salvia leucocephala (leucocephala literally means ‘white-headed’ in Latin)

One such salvia is S. leucocephala, the white-headed sage. A woody perennial, its tenderness is perhaps less surprising when one considers that it comes from Ecuador. Salvia leucocephala is rare both in the wild and in cultivation and I had not seen plants offered for sale before. I made my purchase based purely on the alluring description: the plain green foliage gives very little away.

Salvia dombeyi, commemorates Joseph Dombey (1742– 1794), a French botanist and explorer in South America

On returning home we placed our entire haul in the greenhouse and forgot about it. The first salvia to start flowering was Salvia dombeyi, the giant Bolivian sage. Clusters of pendulous, scarlet flowers emerging from glossy black calyces appeared continuously from November until February. This pleased us both no end and the plant continues to be in rude health. Then, as winter came to a mild and soggy end, Salvia leucocephala started to produce little pyramids of white, wooly calyces at the end of each stem. Finally these opened to reveal striking, maroon flowers, which have lasted several weeks already. Our plant is extremely lanky so we are having to support it using neighbouring plants such as Impatiens balansae and Zantedeschia ‘Hercules’.

Fluffy white calyces hide maroon flowers which are pollinated by hummingbirds in Ecuador

As the days get longer and warmer we will now have to start ventilating the greenhouse on sunny days otherwise grey mould (botrytis) will set in. The plants are packed in close, which is a recipe for disaster if the conditions get too stuffy. My greenhouse is not heated, but ideally Salvia leucocephala would like more winter warmth. I also observe that it needs excellent light to stop it from becoming too leggy, as does Salvia dombeyi. Experts advise pruning after flowering, which I will do before repotting and standing the plant outside for summer.

Salvia leucocephala would look sensational planted in a well-drained gravel garden or in a large pot on a hot, sunny terrace with herbs and olives. Stake it well or provide with a shrubby companion to scramble through. Then provide warmth and shelter in the winter and you’ll be turning heads in February and March when everyone else is reliant on daffodils and forsythia for excitement. TFG.

A heavy spike of flowers taking a rest on the foliage of Zantedeschia ‘Hercules’