Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Burning Bush: Salvia Darcyi?

I have referred to Salvia darcyi glancingly in many posts over the last few years. Perhaps it's time to grasp the thistle (so to speak) and acknowledge this uber-sage, this conflagration, this burning bush of garden plants. Just a few days ago, Mark Kane (an old gardening friend and great horticulturist) commented casually as we strolled past a planting of this sage at DBG) that he was with Carl Schoenfeld and John Fairey (of the famed Yucca Do and Peckerwood Garden) in 1988 in Nuevo Leon when they first collected this taxon: at the time they thought it was Salvia oresbia. A few years later James Compton and William D'Arcy accompanied the Yucca Do meisters to the same spot, and the plant was subsequently named (or renamed?...I am not sure Charles Christopher Parry's collection of S. oresbia in 1878 might not be the same plant incidentally--which would wreak a bit of nomenclatural havoc...)

I obtained starts of this from Salvia guru Richard Dufresne shortly after it was discovered and grew it in the Rock Alpine Garden where it was spectacular: I now wonder if I might not have been the first to grow this in a public garden? Is there a prize for doing that, I wonder? I would take cuttings since it was not reliably perennial in the Montane Slope where I had planted it. Years later it was planted in the Schlessman Plaza of the Romantic Gardens where it confounded me by being vigorously perennial. The spectacle it produced there (and its hardiness) led to its introduction through Plant Select in 2007 as 'Vermillion Bluffs'--the clone introduced through the program being especially vigorous, upright and hardy.

Since 2007 Salvia darcyi has been propagated and planted on a far wider scale than it would have before, and I am beginning to see it here and there around the Denver metro area thriving in places where I never would have imagined it growing before. Although it does hail from 9000' in the Sierra  Madre Oriental (and experiences some pretty frosty conditions in its native habitat) we cannot consider this an ironclad plant in our zone 5/6 Denver area--but situated in protected corners, between rocks or against buildings it has proved hardier than we ever imagined. And in places like Pueblo, Grand Junction, La Junta it is predictably and reliably hardy in most garden sites. These pictures were taken at the spectacular gardens at Kendrick Lake, where the plant has been perennial in many highly exposed situatons (and where it is wonderfully displayed as you can see).

This year at DBG the first flowers came out in April, and by May it was a mass of scarlet awesomeness. It has continued, virtually non-stop, through the intervening months--and there are still masses of flowers on most plants of this I know in Denver in late September. Not many garden perennials can boast this length of blooming season. And I can think of no other flower that is so gaudily, ostentatiously, joyously red. I have no doubt that were Moses to come across this plant, he would not be surprised to hear it speak to him! It has spoken to me for decades.


  1. Rich Dufresne here:

    I originally showed this plant to T. P. Ramamoorthy, who thought it might be either S. oresbia or one of the poorly-identified forms of S. fulgens like S. schaffneri or S. orizabensis.

    While I first went with S. oresbia, I changed that to S. schaffneri after checking a type specimen at the Gray Herbarium at Harvard. There seems to be minimal differences between the two, but I am not a taxonomist.

    I'm still not sure if Dr. Compton checked this possibility out. My recent experience has been that there are a number of these red flowered sages possibly related to S fulgens and S. microphylla that need to be collected and studied. An example is the recently collected S. dichlamys whose identity hass now been challenged.

  2. I don't know if you clicked on my hyperlink in the blog (the second S. oresbia) Rich, but it shows C.C. Parry's type specimen of oresbia--taken on Cerro Potosi--same place as "S. darcyi": they look identical to my eyes. Without examining the specimen carefully I would hesitate: I shall be in Philly next March and perhaps can do so then. I think darcyi may be synonymous. You were right the first time, I daresay!

  3. I seem to recall that propagation of our tiny specimen went slowly. John released plants to several public gardens three years after our trip. Such is botanizing. We knew we weren't sure of the species but we also knew the flower color was unique. High excitement. There an award.for John's contributions to horticulture. Google Peckerwood Garden for a photo-visit to John's current home garden. Supremely artful.

  4. Propagation now, Mark, is going gangbusters. I think it would be well worth trying in Iowa in a warm microclimate (remind me next April and I will get you some). I am getting reports of hardiness up to 7000' in Colorado. It likes a good rich soil, but heat and drainage are a must--and you can provide those!

    I agree about the Yucca Do gang: they deserve a lot more credit than they have gotten!

  5. I remember "Vermillion Bluffs", but never tied it into Salvia darcyi. Funny, but I saw more in Denver last trip, than I ever see in Abq or El Paso...and then it is used once again in a number of gardens in western and central Texas. That compact form is really nice.

    I convinced a good, former nurseryman uwho once sold in the Abq market to tell people something "grows in Denver" if we knew of it there, to get the weirdos here to go for it! Native here didn't matter to them.

  6. Looks like another must try for my garden, thanks for sharing!

  7. Salvia darcyi, does remarkably well here at 4500 ft in the Chiricahua mountains of SE Arizona. S.darcyi has survived tempertures here down to 0 degrees, and just comes back stronger. Mid October and blooming better than S. greggii.

  8. You live in the Chiricahuas, Oh Desert Sage?! Lucky indeed. I am not too surprised: that must be a fabulous place to garden! And you are that much closer to its native range....

    Many of our salvias were nipped in the first frost a week ago. But some have come through...

  9. I have seeds from last seasons darcyi - any hope of being able to germinate and grow them on? We're here at about 5000 ft elev on the eastern side of the Wasatch Mtns - short summer with shorter days due to mountain shadows. The beautiful plant was so spectacular and so well loved by hummingbirds! Thanks for your help.


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