Why You Should Know Salvia madrensis

Salvia_madrensis_WebI sit back and think: What is exciting me now in the plant world? I lean back in my office chair at the Dallas Arboretum, and there, in the distance, is my answer.

It is not new to the market. There is no marketing behind it. It is just a good ol’ solid plant — one of those that catches the eye and makes you say, “I want that.” That beautiful butter-yellow covered plant that showcases the most spectacular stems I have witnessed on any plant is Salvia madrensis.
I first fell in love with S. madrensis when I was working at a mom-and-pop garden center that specialized in organics, natives and rare materials for your home garden. We received a shipment of 1-gallon S. madrensis. It had a gnarly stem that I was immediately impressed with, not to mention those yellow flowers.

In those days, I had to ask myself if it was worth an hour and a half of my paycheck to buy it, even though I didn’t have my own yard. Without hesitating, I asked my buddy if we could split the cost and plant it on her property. We did!

S. Madrensis Is A Stand Out

I was introduced to salvias when I started my career and grew several different cultivars of S. greggii and S. farinacea. I knew that I would have a crush on this genus for a lifetime.

With time and more experience I found other species that spoke to me. Salvia nemerosa, S. guaranitica and S. leucantha are just a few that I embrace. Then there are all the hydrids that have come onto the market. Yes, the list could go on and on. I am a nerd for salvia!

Living in the heart of Texas, I am at the mecca of drought-tolerant, water-conscious salvia species. There are more than 900 species of salvia to admire. One thing I noticed about this genus is there are very few yellow flowers. We have bolds to pastels, deep purple, blue to white, but very few yellows. When we received the 1-gallon containers of Salvia madrensis, I was ready to scream out loud when I saw those fuzzy, butter-yellow flowers for the first time.

S. madrensis is also known as forsythia sage because it looks like stands of forsythia blooming from a distance. As I started to look over every aspect of this new-to-me plant, I saw the distinct cavities within the square stem, a sign of the mint family. The heart-shaped leaves have a texture of coarse sandpaper. Leaves are widely spaced on the stems to show off the spectacular 2-inch-thick stems that have ridges on each side, emphasizing its squareness.

To top it off, these whirls of butter-yellow flowers are butterfly and hummingbird attractors. S. madrensis is the whole package.

It’s Not A Typical Salvia

S. madrensis is a completely different species than the standard drought-tolerant salvia. “Madrensis” refers to the mountains where this yellow-flowering salvia is native: the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range in Mexico, which has an elevation of 4,000 to 5,000 feet. It requires shade — and the water hose. After learning about that, I recalculated where to plant and found a nice patch of open earth on the outskirts of a cedar tree. This is also where the hose had a small leak and the excess water would help get S. madrensis established.

Another awesome attribute is S. madrensis blooms in late October, which is when other species start to go dormant or stop blooming for the season. S. madrensis can reach 4 to 7 feet tall, depending on your watering practices and regional location. With maturity, underground rhizomes form to allow a nice clumping habit. Hardy from Zones 7b to 10, this fall-blooming deciduous plant will rock in these climates.

There have been a few hybrids of S. madrensis that have been introduced to the market. ‘Red Neck Girl’ shows off the most impressive feature of this salvia. The notched stems are not faint red like other selections, but deep red-violet stems that shimmer. A slight grey tinge to the leaf also makes it stand apart from other varieties. Bloom time is early September, a month earlier than other cultivars. ‘Dunham’ is a cold-tolerant cultivar that has been recorded to survive to -9°F in North Carolina. Over the years, S. madrensis has become a pinnacle for me in my adventure with plants. It’s just another plant nerd’s story of a first encounter of the leaf kind.

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