Sunday, February 14, 2010

Crush (Salvia elegans)

It's a strange thing to say, but: I kind of have a crush on Salvia elegans.

Like most crushes, it was never supposed to happen like this. I shouldn't even own one of these. I don't grow any herbs otherwise,1 nobody considers this a "houseplant," it was only ever supposed to be a temporary outdoor thing (something to have outdoors for the hummingbirds and/or butterflies to get excited about), and I'm not terribly fond of most of the other Salvias I've met so why should this be any different.2

But you know how it is. A look here, an accidental brush of the hands there, and suddenly you're head over heels.3

My plant never managed to attract much in the way of hummingbirds or butterflies. By the time it bloomed, in September and October, the weather had already turned way too cold for either one (and we'd not had much in the way of butterflies all summer, because it was unusually cool and wet). So that much was disappointing. But even so. When I bought the plant, it was maybe four or five inches tall, and after a repotting and a summer outside, it had shot up to something like four feet. I appreciate quick growth, the flowers were pretty on their own even if the wildlife didn't seem to notice, and the few times I'd stopped to smell the foliage, I liked it very much. Plus it seemed a shame to waste a whole summer's worth of growth and then just let the plant die.

A very bad picture of the parent plant, which has now been cut back a number of times and plundered for cuttings and so forth. Kind of a shadow of its former self, really. But I figured I needed to include at least one picture of the parent, for size comparison if nothing else. The scruffy-looking long-leafed plant at the bottom is one of the two Gazanias that have survived so far; this was a group planting to begin with. Probably not doing that again, though it worked out pretty well for the summer.

So in it came. Adjustment to the house took a little while (I wasn't keeping it as wet as it preferred, to begin with), but it's settled in okay, and is actually making do with surprisingly little light. So naturally my thoughts turned to propagation.

And propagation is actually the point where everything changed for me, because not only did it propagate very easily (I now have 43 48 of them), but it turned out that the most convenient place to put the new cuttings was right next to the door in my office. Which means that every time I go in or out of the room, I have the opportunity to run my hands across the top of the cuttings and take in the aroma. And, you know, you do this enough times, it'll eventually grow on you.

About 2/3 of the current cuttings collection.

The common name for Salvia elegans is "pineapple sage." This is really the only thing it could be called, since it's a sage (Salvia) that smells like pineapple. I'm not sure if the plants are changing, or if I am, but as the cuttings have aged, they seem to be smelling a little less like pineapple and a little more like Juicy Fruit gum (seriously), often with a note of garden sage underneath (which is kind of a weird combination), but it's still pleasant.4

The cuttings, unfortunately, have grown really fast, and had to be moved out of the office last Wednesday, which is kind of a bummer. But, looked at the right way, maybe this is just an opportunity to make even more of them. I had vague plans at one time to rip up the lawn in the back yard and replace it with pineapple sage:5 maybe moving the cuttings out and starting a bunch of new ones would be a step toward that goal.


I don't know how well it would really do as a long-term indoor plant. Possibly, like with coleus (Solenostemon scutellarioides), it's better off if you minimize the amount of time it's indoors. But here's how I've been taking care of mine:

LIGHT: I have the cuttings under fairly intense artificial light, which they seem to like, but the parent plant is under considerably less artificial light (off to the side of one of the shelves: there's some light from above, but most of it is blocked by the plants that are actually on the shelves) and also seems to be fine. And then there are still-rooting cuttings in the south-facing kitchen window, which seem, again: fine. So I'm thinking this should be flexible enough for most people's homes, but the more the better. Outdoors, they're supposed to be able to take full sun, though a couple people on-line have said that they planted theirs in full sun and it immediately burned up and died. This might be because they failed to water in a timely fashion, because their soil sucked, or because they were starting with a bad plant. Couldn't say. I had mine on the west side of the house, and it seemed perfectly happy there.

I really like the full-size version of this photo.

WATERING: A truly astounding number of websites say that pineapple sage is drought-resistant. I suppose this is true to a degree, in that it won't necessarily die if it gets dried out, but it may defoliate if it's too dry, and I have to water the cuttings about every three days, which is highly unusual.6 When I had the plant outdoors, it was considerably more often than that -- and it wasn't even a particularly hot or sunny summer, by Iowa standards. Water thoroughly, water often. The leaves will begin to curl up when the plant is dry, showing the slightly silvery underside; water as soon as you see this happen and you'll be fine.

HUMIDITY: Doesn't seem to be a particularly big issue, except insofar as really dry air will cause the soil to dry out that much faster. I caution the reader, though, that I haven't really had any experience growing this plant indoors in dry air, so it's possible that this is still an issue.

TEMPERATURE: Anything down to freezing (32F/0C), apparently. Outdoors, they're supposed to be hardy from zone 8 to 11, but if you mulch heavily, plant in a sheltered spot near a building or something, etc., you might be able to push that up to zone 7. Crazier things have happened.

PROPAGATION: These are pretty easy from cuttings, at least for me. I've only had trouble in the beginning, when I was taking cuttings from the darker-colored, woody stems. That doesn't work. Or, well, I shouldn't say it never works; I don't know whether that's true. But the ones that have done best for me are those from relatively new shoots, where the stems were still green. I take a piece maybe three inches (7.6 cm) long, remove the bottom pair or two of leaves,7 stick it in water, and then pot it in soil when roots have appeared.

Other people do it differently: Frances at Faire Garden, for example, starts her cuttings directly in soil, and uses rooting hormone, and covers the cuttings with a plastic dome while they root to keep in humidity: this appears to work also. I like my way better,8 but the point is, these are pretty easy to do from cuttings, and most roads lead to rooting. If you are here because you've had trouble getting cuttings to take in the past, I'm really not sure what advice to give you beyond this.

PESTS: I haven't experienced any yet, personally, nor do I remember any of the work plants ever having any pest problems. Googling turned up a couple people who had problems with them outdoors (one that looked like possibly a fungus, and one that said small white bugs were hollowing out the stems), but it appears to be fairly pest-resistant under most circumstances.

GROOMING: They do drop quite a lot of leaves as they grow, especially if they get too dry between waterings. On the plus side, picking off dead leaves is a great excuse get your face up close and huff the pineapple smell a bit. So it's not much of a hardship.

Plants look best if they're pinched fairly often, at least to begin with; this will give you a nice, bushy, full plant.

Flowers don't appear until nights get pretty long: like I said, mine didn't start blooming until September or October, and it was blooming most heavily after it was already too cold for it to be outside. The variety 'Honey Melon' is said to bloom earlier; I don't know how easy it is to find, though.

FEEDING: They are heavy, heavy feeders, has been my experience. I've been using the Osmocote 14-14-14 stuff, for the sake of convenience, though it seems likely that something higher in nitrogen (like a 24-8-16) would be more appropriate. Some of my plants have gone chlorotic (green veins, yellow between the veins) from lack of nitrogen,9 but they turn around relatively fast, once you feed them again.

Salvia elegans has a few cultivars, though I think I personally have only encountered the species. lists 'Honey Melon,' a smaller, earlier-blooming variety, and 'Tangerine,' which is said to have a more orangey, citrus smell to the leaves. The one I hear the most about is 'Golden Delicious,' which has chartreuse leaves instead of the usual green, and which can be seen en masse and in full bloom, in the below photo (UPDATE: Frances tells me in comments that this is a single plant, not a mass planting.):

Salvia elegans 'Golden Delicious.' Photo by Frances at Faire Garden. Used by permission.

Where hardy, Salvia elegans can get very, very tall. As with most claims of plant height, there's no solid consensus on what the maximum might be, but I saw claims of 6 and 8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 meters), and virtually everybody agrees that it can hit at least 4 feet (1.2 meters). Or, well -- hell, I've seen it hit four feet with my own eyes, so I don't want to hear any arguing about that. Indoors, I'm honestly not sure what you can expect from one -- nobody seems to grow them indoors year-round. My cuttings, though, have gone from being about 2 inches tall when I started them (November and December) to about six inches tall now, in February, so I would be surprised if similar heights couldn't be achieved indoors, especially under lights.

Oh! I can't believe I've written this much without mentioning -- Salvia elegans is totally edible, also. I found recipes for chicken, smoothies, salsa, bread, and pound cake (link to first four) (link to cake). You can add leaves to lemonade, jellies, kebabs, soup, fruit salad, regular salad, dark chocolate, with vanilla ice cream, in iced tea, or as a tea by itself10 -- basically in or with anything you can eat. I haven't tried cooking with it myself, mostly because I am not much of a cook, but perhaps someday. Eating a single leaf by itself, just to try, didn't do a lot to impress me -- it mostly tasted like, you know, leaf -- but the pineapple and sage odors were there, and lingered in the mouth after I swallowed, which was nice. So, you know. It's a thing to experiment with.

I like this picture, too. One of the cuttings in the middle of the flat bloomed not too long ago, and this is how that looked from within the cuttings forest.

Be sure, though, if you do try it, that you use a plant you can trust not to have been sprayed with pesticides. Not that there's likely to be that much pesticide residue on a handful of leaves anyway, but there's no sense in going out of your way to eat pesticide.

Wikipedia includes the information that pineapple sage tea is used in traditional folk medicine in Mexico and Guatemala (where the plant is from; it's apparently known as "mirto" in its native range) for treatment of depression and anxiety. I think you should take this with a lot of salt, both because it's Wikipedia and because it's folk medicine, but I can kind of see it, and there's at least a scientific paper cited, which is better than most questionable Wikipedia claims get. I do genuinely enjoy smelling the leaves, and get a bit of a lift from doing so,11 and it does make a certain amount of logical/emotional sense to me that it'd be hard to be anxious while you're smelling pineapple sage. Another website lists it as a sort of all-around digestive tonic, which is vague enough as to be basically meaningless, but I suppose this at least means that the plant's not likely to make stomach problems any worse. The anxiety claim seems more plausible to me. I don't know. Maybe I should leave medicinal uses as a homework exercise for the reader.

One spray of flowers from the parent plant. I don't remember why I didn't get a picture of the whole plant while it was in bloom, but I'm sure I must have had a really good reason.

I am, alas, not the only person out there with a crush on this plant: virtually everywhere I went on the internet, people raved about it. The only negative comments had to do with it as a perennial: sometimes people can overwinter it, sometimes they can't. Even when you can, apparently it won't necessarily come back reliably year after year. But everybody just thinks the flowers are wonderful, and the fragrance, and swears that they attract hummingbirds and butterflies like crazy, and honestly I don't think I've ever seen commenters so unanimously smitten with a plant. Garden Webbers either, actually.

Perhaps it's the anxiety-reducing effects. Maybe they're in love.

Of course, love is also widely-acknowledged to have anxiety-reducing effects. So.


Photo credits: Mine except where otherwise credited.

1 We tried basil (Ocimum basilicum) once. Didn't work out well. Also I guess technically Plectranthus amboinicus (Cuban oregano), which I also have, probably counts as an herb. But I don't grow rosemary, or thyme, or sage, or any of the other usual potted herbs. Nor, I have to admit, am I especially interested in doing so.
2 Not that I hate Salvias, but I definitely like some better than others. Which ones I like, and which ones I don't, mostly depends on their behavior when I worked with them in the garden center, and has little to do with their actual merits or defects. In some cases, I barely ever even got to see them bloom. So I'm not a fair judge of Salvias, but I'm still not nuts about the genus.
3 This expression has been troubling me for a while now. Isn't one's head normally above one's heels? And if so, why do people say this? I mean, if you're looking for a head-and-heels related metaphor for being suddenly and intensely in love, it seems like you'd go with a configuration of body parts that's unusual and unexpected, like being in love itself, not something that describes most people in most circumstances.
4 One of the commenters noted that the pineapple smell seems most pronounced in the younger leaves; this may explain the difference.
5 Imagine what it would be like to MOW! I'm not serious that replacing the whole lawn was ever the idea, but I do think I'm going to try to plant a solid section of it in pineapple sage at some point. Just 'cause.
6 I grow almost nothing that needs water that often, because with this many plants, I'm doing good to get around to checking a plant for water once every twelve days or so. I'm willing to make an exception in this case because I like the plant so well, and also because my plants are mostly in flats, so I can water 32 plants at once in the downstairs shower and not have to waste a lot of time on the process.
7 Roots on Salvia elegans will only grow from nodes (the places where leaves attach). See picture:

So you do have to have at least one leafless node under water for this to work.
8 Duh: if I liked Frances's way better, then Frances's way would also be my way, and I'd have had no need to mention Frances.
9 Or at least I think it was nitrogen, since adding more of the 14-14-14 made it stop. Chlorosis can sometimes happen due to other mineral deficiencies, like nitrogen or iron, among plants in general, and I'm not sure how you tell them apart. But with this particular plant, in this particular instance, I think the problem was nitrogen.
10 A tip from a Garden Web forum thread about uses for pineapple sage: making a tea of pineapple sage and pineapple mint (Mentha suaveolens) combined is significantly better than tea from either one by itself. Something about Salvia has aroma but not much flavor, and Mentha has flavor but not a lot of aroma.
11 An extremely short-lived lift, it should be noted. But hey, sometimes that's all you need.


Ginny Burton said...

Happy Valentine's Day to you and your husband, Mr_S! And to Nina, too, in your ménage à trois.

Maybe Miss Nina would enjoy having one of the plants in her habitat. It would get enough moisture, and make her room smell pretty.

Jean Campbell said...

Oh, me too! Pineapple sage will bloom all winter if it gets ample light. Iffy returns here if left in the ground, but you've demonstrated the ease of cuttings and the tiniest little piece will make a huge plant, planted out in the spring.

Fortunately my cat and dog prefer lemon grass as their salad.

Paul said...

Oregano, at least at my folks' place is winter hardy. I planted it up against the house foundation.

Btw, why "rip up the lawn"? That's loads of back breaking work! Lasagna gardening is soooo much easier and still effective for killing off grass. :)

Emily said...

I think it would help if you thought of it as the whole phrase - falling head over heels. So then it's a really bad tumble, not a quick slide feet first (head behind heels?) where you can hope to catch yourself quickly and hop back up to brush the dirt off but falling such that you briefly wobble backwards and then your head passes over your heels in a sort of somersault-y fashion and you're now being thwacked with angry tree roots face-first.

Andrew said...

The first time I really noticed this plant was a few years ago in late October/early November (the plants were protected from frost by the open structure they were under though it was still cold enough that all other annuals had long since died). We were clearing things like benches and planters that had been made up, most now had very dead looking annuals but in one pot, which had I guess had mixed herbs in it, there were these very large, very bushy plants with the most spectacular display of red flowers (especially since it was November).

I've pretty much loved this plant ever since, though it doesn't look very good inside (long term) but it grows well enough and at least for the early part of its life indoors it will be flowering, so that's a plus.

Anonymous said...

HA, Mr. Sub, you have given everyone a most wonderful Valentine's Day present! Thanks for the mention and link love, but I must correct one item, that is ONE plant in the mass planting at my son's garden. It was at least five feet tall. My plant came from cuttings he took in the fall of 2008. I potted the cutting he gave me and have had the same good luck as you with green stem cuttings making roots right away. A lawn of this would me a dream to mow. What an idea! This plant in the greenhouse does drop the occasional leaf, but it has been worry free and given so many baby plants to put into the garden that we will always take cuttings to winter over inside. I wouldn't be without it. :-)

Keith said...

I grow S.elegans "Tangerine", which is hardy outdoors here in the UK under cover (it dislikes the cold and wet combo)and blooms all summer from May onwards. All three of my mature plants are still in bloom this morning. And best of all, I can even take hardwood cuttings - this may be due to the fact that it creates aerial roots.

Lytje said...

Thanks for a educational blog-entry.

I have (today) tried it myself - and documented in on my blog:

Do you have any idea how long I should expect to wait before the roots will appear?

mr_subjunctive said...


I haven't done it in a while, but I remember it being really fast. Like, if it's going to work, you should see the beginnings of roots in something like 7-10 days. I think.