Salvia, or sage, is a large genus of plants, including hundreds of species grown for culinary and ornamental purposes. Many garden supply stores carry several species, differentiating between purely ornamental ones and plants that can be used for cooking. All of the plants are characterized by upright flower stalks with clusters of often brightly colored flowers, along with square stems and slender grey-green to bright green leaves. When planted in an area it likes, the plant will flourish and reseed itself with little additional care.
Sage is found all over the world, especially in Mediterranean climates. Culinary sages are mostly native to Europe, while decorative varieties originated largely in the Americas. The plants have been further spread and hybridized by human intervention, since they are a popular addition to the garden.
For a low water garden or a garden with poor soil conditions, salvia is an excellent choice of ornamental plant and ground cover. Like many members of the mint family, these species are very hardy, except in extremely cold weather, and they actually prefer poor soil, as long as it drains well. In temperate conditions, the plants can be grown as annuals, and they will turn into very large bushes if allowed to grow unchecked. Perennial salvia will reseed itself, and it can also be propagated through root division every few years.
In a cold climate, seedlings should be planted after the last frost in a warm, sunny spot. The red, purple, white, or orange blooms can be periodically deadheaded to keep the plant in flower, and the foliage will stay green until the winter weather is too cold for the plant. It can be used as a potted ornamental as well, although it does not do well indoors.
Culinary salvia can be used both fresh and dried in soups, stocks, sauces, and other dishes. It adds a strong aroma and flavor to foods, especially when used fresh. Ornamental plants can be dried and used in flower arrangements and bouquets. The lingering aroma can also be used to enhance potpourri, and it can be burned as incense.
One cultivar, Salvia divinorum or diviner's sage, has psychoactive properties due to a diterpenoid compound in the plant. In addition, the plant is also quite attractive, and it is often use for ornamental borders and dried flower arrangements. It has a long history of traditional use among Native Americans, especially in Mexico and the Southwest.