Scientific Name: Salvia confertiflora
Common Names: Red velvet sage
Plant Type: Shrub, evergreen.
Environment: FRich, well drained soil. Full sun to light shade. Frost sensitive, suffering significant damage when temperatures drop into the low 20’s degrees F. Moderate water needs.
Bloom: Reliably from August through Fall up to first frost but in the Bay Area with its mild climate it has been known to bloom nearly year round.
Uses: With its large size it is perfect at the back of a perennial border garden. Attracts hummingbirds, honeybees. Deer resistant. Attractive as cut flowers, fresh and dried.
This striking sage is native to Brazil. It was first discovered in 1833 by the Austrian naturalist, Johann Baptist Emanuel Pohl in the Serra dos Órgãos, state of Rio de Janeiro. Pohl sent specimens back to botanical gardens of Europe where it was popular not only for its dramatic color, but also for its prolific flowering well up to the time of frost. It has been used in horticulture in the United States since the 1960s, although it isn't commonly sold at nurseries because of its large size.
With an upright habit, this is one of the larger species of Salvia, typically growing four to six, but even up to eight feet tall! It is also a fast grower and will reach near full height and width in one season.
The inflorescence, of which there can be dozens on a single plant, is a narrow spire-like spike reaching two feet tall. The rather small orange-red flowers, many in each whorl, are held close to the reddish-brown stem, and this is reflected in the epithet, “confertiflora” which means “crowded with flowers.” The flowers themselves are densely clothed with velvety reddish-brown hairs covering the dark red calyx and crimson petals.
Smooth, bright-green new leaves with serrated edges mature to dark-green foliage that is heavily textured. The sunken veins of the leaves take on a wrinkled appearance. The leaf petioles also don reddish-brown velvety hairs. The entire shrub is enticing in or out of bloom. But of course, when flowering, the combination of colors and textures is most dramatic!
Red velvet sage is shrubby, but somewhat tender and should be protected in areas of frost. The plant grows so large that it may need staking and protection from wind in gardens, and it may even benefit from yearly heavy pruning to keep it from getting too leggy. It loves the sun. However, unlike a lot of salvias, it will bloom very well in part shade.
It is a hummingbird and honeybee magnet, and like many sages, it is deer resistant. The flower spikes are lovely in arrangements, fresh or dried.
Look for this lush and tantalizing sage in beds 14A and 26D along the paved path at the S edge of the Great Meadow; and in Andean Cloud Forest bed 54D.
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text by Mona Bourell. Photos by Mona Bourell, and Joanne Taylor.