Beloved and annoying! Salvia madrensis

A look at a plant that’s teaching me new things about Salvia’s. Propagating itself and teasing us with its flowers

Salvia madrensis

Aka: Forsythia sage

Native to the Sierra Madre, Mexico. Grows at 4,000-5,000 elevation in warm, wet areas. First documented by botanist Berthold Carl Seemann (1825 -1871) who worked extensively in South America.

In a tip of my virtual hat to Alison levey’s blog ‘The Blackberry Garden’ where she regularly features a plant that has been causing problems Id like to tell you about mine.

There are a million Salvias I’ve never seen I’m sure. There are nearly a 1000 species recorded and this doesn’t include the variations we have bred from crossing and selection, but when I joined Ulting Wick Philippa introduced me to one completely different to all the others id encountered so far.

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For a start it has yellow, pure yellow flowers! Not orangey yellow, Not red’ish yellow but almost an acid yellow. I only know this as I had to look it up as our single example didn’t get to flowering size in 2017. I was told it was difficult to get cuttings from, this was made even more tricky by the fact that we only had the one and obviously we wanted it to flower too. Always up for a challenge I managed to get three bits of cutting material from a smaller stem and left the main one alone.

Of those 3, 2 struck successfully! I was made up!

This year those 3 made their way into the main beds in the Old Farmyard, where like all the Salvias in the heatwave they sat and did pretty much nothing. They grew! Oh god did they grow! but no flower spikes forming…. until!

The weather eventually returned to near normal, still very much on the dry side but the temperatures became bearable again and suddenly ALL the Salvias decided it might be worth doing some flowering. S. leucantha which has long been a favourite of mine and is a late flowerer at the best of times was almost a month behind where it was last year. ‘Super trooper’ which had flowered prolifically and constantly throughout 2017 had also been sporadic and S. confertiflora was also far behind the previous year

BUT

S. madrensis had flower spikes forming!!

So we waited…. all through September, sporadically checking on progress, getting a stern talking to from Philippa, they progressed slowly. I’m sure glaciers have moved quicker! It was gradually getting there though, by october the colour was starting to show on the spike, still we waited. The weather began to cool, still we waited. The Ensetes and Musa got lifted, still we waited. Eventually today with the prospect of frost on the horizon we gave in and decided to lift them and bring them into a protected place.

Neither of us could bear to cut them down though as we both really wanted to see them flower. So it was agreed they would be lifted entire. As they had flopped a little in situ it kinda looked like they were only around 6 ft tall but as I got in there I had several surprises.

First, they had turned into GIANTS!! The tallest now measures at least 8ft tall.

Second, they had, had babies! Yes babies!

You have no idea of my frustration when I realised exactly how easy propagating from these could be when I had worried and fretted over my 3 measly cuttings from the year before.

Propagating Salvias

There are several different methods you could use depending on genus. The most obvious and commonly used method is stem cuttings. They will all respond well to this. Theres lots of info available on how to do this so I wont cover old ground but I shall say I tend to prefer semi lignate (slightly woody) material and rather than cutting directly below a node as the books will tell you I cut mid-stem. Why? I’m so glad you asked! For a lot of Salvias ,and a few other plants, if you leave them to get old and woody they will start to form adventitious ( aerial ) roots. These roots are always located mid stem, as such it makes sense to think that if they do this happily with no interference from us they will do the same when we take cuttings.

S. madrensis is a bit weird though as it has concave stems, like all members of the sage family they qualify as square, kinda but… well … its easier to show you what I mean

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I will also always try to save 2 growing points above my rooting node for 2 reasons. First if you lose 1 there’s always a second chance and second when the cutting does take and you pot on, pot it slightly deeper each time till that lower growing point is eventually buried and even if disaster strikes there is a chance it could recover!

Some Salvias can be divided, S leucantha is one of these. It layers itself readily and in a very short time can become a bit of a beast. If you want to do this I would recommend leaving it till spring though. Layers can be removed in autumn, cut back and potted up but leave it till spring before putting your spade through the crown of the parent plant.

Very few Salvias however do what madrensis does! I’ve only encountered one in 25 years and even that wasn’t quite the same as what I saw on Friday (Disclaimer, others may well know all about this and it might not be that weird) . My first ever Salvia in 2001 was Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Bloom’. I adored it! That first winter I brought it into my cool glass house and cried because it died… or so I thought!

In spring I turfed the ginormous pot out to the side of the glasshouse thinking I would deal with it later. A month on I glanced down and a 100 fresh green shoots were popping up! Turns out it develops a tuber! I digress

S. madrensis was making a bid for freedom through root runners!

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Back to Friday and I eventually managed to get the monster out of the ground, wrestled its 8ft bulk into the potting shed. Removed the root runners and potted them up. then removed all the big leaves to help it cope with the shocking disturbance id just put it through.

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Normally at this point I would advise cutting them back hard to minimise shock and also utilise the stems for all those cuttings but as we would actually like to see this in full flower before cutting it down.

The  aerial roots are fully formed at the base of the plant which means I can either use them for cuttings when we do cut it back or when we plant out next year we can plant it slightly lower and they will help stabilise the plant and give it a better root system.

Plants never cease to amaze me and sometimes annoy me, you spend months waiting for them to do their thing, weeks trying to propagate from them and then when you turn your back for 5 seconds they do it all on their own!

Hopefully if you have a plant that’s been frustrating you, it will do the same.

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