Horticultural Highlight: Anise-scented sage
In this series, the staff of Duke Gardens highlights plants you’ll find within our 55-acre living collection. This week, marketing and communications assistant Katherine Hale features a fall favorite.
Botanical name: Salvia guarantica
Common name: Anise-scented sage, hummingbird sage
Family name: Lamiaceae (mint family)
Native range: Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina
Location in Duke Gardens: Historic Gardens
USDA Hardiness Zones: 8-10
Flowers in fall? Yes, please! Boasting flags of brilliant blue and purple inflorescences from late August until frost, anise-scented sage (Salvia guarantica) is impossible to miss right now in the Historic Gardens. This mint family relative gets its name from the mild scent the leaves release when crushed—reminiscent to many of culinary anise.
Hailing from South America, anise-scented sage begins blooming in mid-summer and into the fall. Sensitive to frost, it is commonly grown as an annual north of USDA Zone 8. S. guarantica is also known as hummingbird sage, due to its immense popularity with ruby-throated hummingbirds (Archilochus colubris). However, there are several other salvias with this name, so horticulturists tend to refer to it by its scientific name or as anise-scented sage to avoid unnecessary confusion.
Why do hummingbirds like this and other salvias so much? Not only are the colorful flowers easy to spot from a distance, they are perfectly positioned for hummingbirds to grab their next meal in the avian equivalent of a drive-through. Anise-scented sage’s bloom time is perfectly synchronized with the birds' annual fall migration to Central America, a cross-continental trek of epic proportions, culminating in a 36-hour nonstop flight across the Gulf of Mexico. Stopping in to savor the anise-scented sage flowers en route helps these amazing birds to survive their harrowing journey.
As one might expect with such a beautiful plant, numerous cultivars are available for horticultural use. Here at Duke Gardens, you’ll find ‘Amistad’ incorporated into the new perennial plantings around the Rose Circle, and ‘Black and Bloom’ in the Walker Dillard Kirby Perennial Allée. The latter is notable both for its deep blue flowers and its unusual hardiness, capable of surviving mild winters here in the Triangle region (USDA hardiness zone 7) if well mulched. This ensures sprays of flowers that delight both humans and hummingbirds passing through on their travels.
Photos of a ruby-throated hummingbird visiting anise-scented sage flowers by Brian Wells (top, middle right); and an eastern carpenter bee (Xylocopa virginica) by Clarence Burke (below).