in the garden | Late flowering | Gardening

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Earlier this week I was visiting a neighbor and noticed an eye-catching plant in rare form for this time of year. It was filled with abundant red flowers that almost glistened against a background of green leaves behind him. Swirls of tiny flowers filled the thorny stems that jutted out in all directions, creating a spectacle that no human or pollinator could miss.

After asking, I learned that this plant was pineapple sage (Salvia elegans), named after its aromatic foliage with a scent very similar to pineapple when crushed. For me, it was an “ah-ha” moment. I’ve always read that pineapple sage is a pollinating plant, which made me take note when I first encountered it at the Missouri Botanical Garden a few years ago.

It was early summer, when foliage abounds but flowers are absent. I spent a few minutes examining the fine-textured leaves and smelling their pineapple scent, but didn’t think much about it at the time. So it was great for me to see this flowering plant and connect the wonderful aromatic leaves with its impressive inflorescences to realize its true value in the landscape.

Pineapple sage is not native to the much warmer climates of Mexico and Guatemala. As such, it’s only hardy in Zone 8, making it an annual here in east-central Illinois (Zone 5b). In its natural range, it usually occurs as clumps or large groups in sunny forest edges across the Sierra Madre Mountains at elevations above 6,000 feet. In the landscape, it prefers a similar setting with full sun and well-drained soils.

The plants I observed this week were about 3 feet tall and were planted in early summer. Thus, this fast-growing annual can reach significant heights in a single growing season, with similar spread. Its fine-textured foliage and more open habit make it appear lighter and less dense than other landscape plants that support a similar number of flowers.

Pineapple sage works well as a large, fast-growing annual mixed in perennial beds or herb gardens. It can be added as a specimen plant or in small groups to amplify its effect.

There are a number of cultivars that can have more attractive or interesting foliage, which adds to the summer interest. Its light green foliage, with some cultivars tending to almost highlighted yellow leaves, can create a nice contrast when adjacent to plants with darker foliage.

At the Missouri Botanical Garden, I observed this plant in various containers, paired with other species that offer interesting summer blooms as pineapple sage grows into its fall display. It therefore works well in containers, although it does require constant humidity to stay healthy and provide full bloom later in the year.

The explosion of late-season, nectar-filled flowers that this plant offers is appealing to bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. In its original range, it is considered a favorite of hummingbirds, with the typical tubular-shaped flower that hummingbirds tend to prefer.

As it blooms so late in the season, it can help support migrating hummingbirds and provide a late-season floral resource for other pollinators preparing for winter here in Illinois.

Beyond the use of pollinators, the foliage and flowers of this plant are edible for humans. Flowers can be a colorful garnish or a nice addition to fresh salads. The leaves can also be added to salads or used to make interesting hot or iced teas.

As you contemplate next spring’s garden plans, consider adding this interesting annual for its unprecedented fall bloom. While it adds great value for pollinators and can be a food source for humans as well, it also provides a neat addition with an interesting pineapple scent.

Ryan Pankau is a Horticultural Educator with UI Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. This column also appears on his ‘Garden Scoop’ blog at go.illinois.edu/GardenScoopBlog.


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