As autumn advances the garden is slipping from summer into winter mode. On the allotment, I’ve taken down all the bean frames and dug out the squash, courgette and sweetcorn plants and even the Cosmos and Dahlia flowers are looking windswept and past their best.
Salvia ‘Hotlips’ is a woody sage from Mexico. It is usually considered to be a form of Salvia microphylla, Blackcurrant Sage, although it is sometimes (as on the Thompson & Morgan website) classified as a form of Salvia x jamensis (a hybrid between Salvia microphylla and Salvia greggii). I’ll skirt around the naming problem by just using the name Salvia ‘Hotlips’.
Salvia ‘Hotlips’ is very drought tolerant and flowers from early summer until the first hard frosts. It is described as being semi-hardy and will grow happily outdoors here in Norfolk, although it will lose many of its leaves in the winter. It does best in a well-drained soil in a sunny spot and a prune back in spring, to tidy it up and remove twigs that have died off in winter, will keep it happy. In a colder area you can grow it in a pot and take it into an unheated greenhouse for the winter to keep it drier and slightly warmer – it is usually the combination of cold and damp that more tender plants dislike. If you grow it in a pot, repot it once a year and give it a regular feed in the summer months.
The name ‘Hotlips’ comes from the colour of the flowers, which are white with dramatic red lips, the colour of a garish lipstick. Depending on the conditions in which the plant is grown, the flowers can vary between bi-coloured red and white, pure red and pure white.
The flowers are attractive to bees. The nectar is at the bottom of the tube of the flower and a bumblebee can reach it by pushing down on the lower petal and crawling inside the flower. Short-tongued bumblebees often find it easier to “cheat”, by biting a hole in the base of the flower to steal the nectar. This is quite literally robbery: the bee takes the nectar without pollinating the flower. We recently spotted a Buff-tailed Bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) queen doing this on our plant.
The leaves have a pleasant blackcurrant smell when bruised: Salvia microphylla is sometimes known as Blackcurrant Sage. The flowers taste pleasantly sweet and small numbers can be used to decorate salads and the leaves can be used fresh or dried as a flavouring. A herbal tea can be made from the leaves, called ‘mirto de montes’ (after the name commonly used for the plant in Mexico, meaning ‘myrtle of the mountains’). Medicinally, the leaves can be used to reduce fever.
In recent studies extracts from S. x jamensis have been shown to be cytotoxic (toxic to cells) and phytotoxic, inhibiting the germination of poppy (Papaver rhoeas) and oat (Avena sativa) seeds. The essential oil of the hybrid Salvia x jamensis contains at least 56 different compounds.
Salvia ‘Hotlips’ was first made available to gardeners in 2002 by Stybning Arboretum, now known as San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum. The original plants were brought to the United States from Oaxaca, Mexico, after a housewarming party given by Richard Turner, the editor of Pacific Horticulture Magazine. His Mexican maid, Alta-Gracia, had provided flowers from her garden for the party, including those of this lovely plant.
There are many other varieties of Salvia microphylla and its near relatives, so even if you think that Salvia ‘Hotlips’ is a bit too vulgar for your garden, you can grow one of the others, although the hardiness of different cultivars varies: from 1 to -10 Celcius. I have the purple-flowered Salvia ‘Christine Yeo’ in a pot and also a pink-flowered Salvia microphylla, which I bought from Natural Surroundings many years ago. It did well in pots and even better in the garden. There are also many other species of late summer flowering Salvia to choose from.
New plants of Salvia ‘Hotlips’ and its relatives are easy to raise from cuttings in late summer and early autumn. One of the pink-flowered plants that I raised from cuttings has done very well in Grapes Hill Community Garden, just inside the gate. If you’re unsure whether your particular plant will be hardy where you live, taking cuttings and keeping them frost free over winter is a good insurance policy.