Salvia farinacea

mealy sage


Salvia farinacea

Benth. 1833

pronounced: SAL-vee-uh far-ih-NAY-see-uh

(Lamiaceae — the lavender family)


common names: mealy sage, mealycup sage

Salvia was the Roman name for the herb sage, probably from salveo, to be well, in good health. This is a very large genus of plants, encompassing hundreds of species grown for culinary and ornamental purposes. All of them are characterized by upright flower stalks with clusters of often brightly-coloured flowers, square stems, and slender grey-green to bright green leaves. They are easy plants to grow, and will usually reseed themselves. The species is found all over the world, especially in Mediterranean climates. Most of the culinary sages are native to Europe, while the decorative ones mostly originated in the Americas.

Farinacea is from the Latin farinaceus, like flour, meal. The species is named for the mealy-white (sometimes purple) appearance of the sepals, which are covered with felted hairs. There are countless cultivars which vary slightly in the colour and form of the flowers. The flowers of most of the cultivars are blue, 5-lobed and 2-lipped, 17 – 19 mm long, with 2 stamens and a pistil. They have the usual sage fragrance. The long narrow leaves grow in clusters, out of which grow the flower stems. The leaves may or may not have teeth. Dark blue to white tubular flowers are densely congested in whorls along the upper stems, creating a 7 – 20 cm long spike. Grey green, shiny, lanceolate leaves are numerous, especially in the lower portion of the plant.

Among the more popular cultivars are ‘Blue Bedder’, which only grows to about 30 cm high, ‘Strata’, a bit taller with blue and white two-tone flowers, and ‘Victoria’, probably the most popular (and I think the one we have here), a robust grower with intensely blue-violet flowers. The taller cultivars go well at the back of an herbaceous border, or mingle with many other flowering annuals and perennials to give an English cottage garden effect. The shorter cultivars lend themselves nicely to container gardens and to broad borders.

George Bentham (1800–1884), the remarkable English botanist, wrote the first monograph on the genus in 1832–1836, basing his classification on staminal morphology. The defining characteristic of the genus is the unusual pollination mechanism, which consists of 2 stamens connected to form a lever. When a pollinator enters the flower for nectar, the lever activates, causing the stamens to move and the pollen to be deposited on the pollinator. When the pollinator withdraws from the flower, the lever returns the stamens to their original position. As the pollinator enters another flower of the same species, the stigma is placed in a general location that corresponds to where the pollen was deposited on the pollinator’s body. The lever of most Salvia species is not specialized for s single pollinator, but generic, and selected to be easily released by many bird and bee pollinators of varying shapes and sizes. Bentham eventually organized Salvia into 12 sections, based on differences in corolla, calyx and stamens. He placed these into 4 sub-genera that were generally divided into Old World and New World species. His system is still widely used, although many botanists do not accept it. A modern and comprehensive study of the genus was done by Gabriel Alziar, in his Catalogue Synonymique des Salvia du Monde (World Catalogue of Salvia Synonyms, 1989).


Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2011
Page last updated 29th March 2019