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Plant Profiles

The Best Season Ever: Sacred Incan Sage



The outer limits of salvia!  Salvia dombeyi flowers are flaming-hot, and with a predatory snout.  They dangle from tubular calyces the color of eggplant.  This species grows in frost-free but cool forests in Peru and Bolivia, where it scrambles up to twenty feet through neighboring growth.


Could any relative of our compact, tame garden-variety salvias be more weird?  Or more challenging?  The long thin stems need support, the plant is late-blooming but can't stand even the thought of frost, and its flowers' striking coloring limits partners that can also thrive in the dappled shade it requires.




Then again, for these flowers, what effort could be too much?  This year, my plants were just starting to flower when an unusually-early mid-October frost put the kibosh on further display.  Next season, I'll follow even more of my own advice—see "How to handle it", below—in hopes of greater success.


Here's how to grow this sui generis salvia:


Latin Name

Salvia dombeyi

Common Name



Lamiaceae, the Mint family.

What kind of plant is it?

Tropical perennial.


Zones 10 to 12.


Multi-stemmed and scandent, with long, slender, and sparsely-leaved stems that definitely need support.

Rate of Growth


Size in ten years

In mild, humid, frost-free climates—and with extensive enough support—to twenty feet.  Four to eight feet even as an annual.


Even with support, loose and a bit of a mess.  Have patience for the flowers 

Grown for

its odd habit:  Here's a salvia that's a vine!


its potential size: Here's a salvia that grows high enough to greet you at  your third-floor windows!


its extraordinary flowers:  Here's the salvia whose individual flowers are the largest of any of the 900-odd Salvia species.  Each is a narrow tube three to five inches long, and of  stunningly intense scarlet.  The surface is flocked with hair-like projections of the same color; they are innumerable but, even so, are not dense enough for the effect to appear velvety.  The flowers emerge from chocolate-burgundy calices—the perfect understated contrast—and open to a salvia's typical "shrieking harpie" snout-like flare.  They are borne in dangling clusters of a dozen or more, like the inspiration for jangling ultra-modern plastic earrings that only Veruschka would have been tall enough to have worn free-swinging, and which Vreeland would have worn, regardless, even though they'd have tickled her clavicles.

Flowering season

As an annual, late Summer into Fall.  Be wary of frost.  In a cool but frost-free climate—think the subtropical Andean foothills of its native Bolivia or the Bay area of California—flowering begins somewhat earlier in Summer.  Even in ideal circumstances, Salvia dombeyi is the antithesis of its cousins that are in bloom in April in their nursery four-packs.  

Color combinations

As is typical for plants whose palette includes a strong and successful pairing—Salvia 'Limelight' comes to mind, as well, with indigo flowers emerging from acid-green calyces—Salvia dombeyi isn't compatible with colors that stray far from its triumphant combo of eggplant and scarlet.  The options are narrowed even further because the pigment of the calyx and flower is solid.  The bizarre hairs on the flower?  The exact same shade of hot scarlet, fantastic as it is.  The base of the calyx has the faintest blush of green, but the it's the same boring green of the foliage.  (Given that a calyx is a modified leaf, there's a certain logic there.)


If Salvia dombeyi were a person, it would be as renowned for its specfic and extravagant eccentricity, as its lack of interest in anything else.  Yellow, blue, pink, rose, and even white: Salvia dombeyi has nothing to say to any of them.  Only risk bringing in plants with any coloring beyond neutral green if they can sing in tones of ebony and cinnamon, or tomato and pumpkin.  

Plant partners 

Salvia dombeyi partners with completely different colors than Salvia 'Limelight', but on the same principles.  With possibilities for additional color so limited, bring in partners that are either neutral green or amplify the colors at hand—chocolate-burgundy and brightest scarlet—but with different shapes and textures. 


The challenge is that the usual suspects for easy late-season scarlet or burgundy, such as dahlias and cannas, require full sun and heat, whereas Salvia dombeyi prefers bright indirect light, Spring-like but frost-free coolness.  


The peculiar and, frankly, problematic scandent habit of Salvia dombeyi is another restriction.  The plant can't be grown without support, preferably from a trellis, or provided by a partner plant that is, itself, comfortable with dappled shade but also has an open habit and roots that are not greedy.


Despite this range of unusual criteria, there are still possibilities.  All of the plants below enjoy the same circumstances as Salvia dombeyi.   


The shiny leaves of Philodendron erubescens 'Black Cardinal' are solid ebony.  The backs of the leaves of Hedychium greenii are burgundy, and its flowers are bright orange.  The flowers of Hedychium 'Fiesta' are a similar shade, and with six-foot stems that are self-supporting enough that the clump could serve as scaffolding for the Salvia.  Be careful with the dark foliaged cultivars of Colocasia.  Many, like 'Diamond Head', have purple or pink lurking in their veins.  Colocasia 'Black Beauty' has green veins, and its "black" is actually a dark matte ebony that is—hooray!—compatible.  I'm eager to experiment with "black" calla lilies.  The darkest-eggplant flowers of some forms betray their inner pinkness, but others seem to be craving just the warm scarlet tones the Salvia flowers offer.


Fuchsias are another possibility.  Yes, the flowers of most forms with "red" blooms (actually the calyx) usually have purple in them, while the color of the true flower within is, from the worldview of Salvia dombeyi, an irrelevant blue or violet.  But I have seen a form of F. riccartonii whose flowers have a red-orange calyx, and whose petals are the exact shade of eggplant as the calyx of the Salvia.  If only it were identified as a cultivar, or had a source given!


Yet another fiery-flowered group of plants for part shade and cool temperatures are the tuberous species of nasturtium that are native to the same South American haunts as Salvia dombeyi.  The flowers of Tropaeolum speciosum have the same eggplant and scarlet color scheme, as do those of Tropaeolum tricolor.  The flowers of Bomarea species are similar to those of their Alstroemeria relatives, and the plant scrambles through the same subtropical semi-shade that Salvia dombeyi enjoys.  Given these plants' abhorrence of heat, they are probably realistic in North America only in maritime Canada, coastal California, or the Pacific Northwest.  Or as container specimens in an air-conditioned greenhouse.


Clearly, it's a quixotic quest to partner Salvia dombeyi well, let alone widely.

Where to use it in your garden

Without question, Salvia dombeyi is a garden eccentric, not a workhorse nor, even where hardy, an in-ground focus for any spot that's more than secondary.  The plant sprawls unless supported, and when not in bloom looks almost weedy.  Where hardy, the plant drops much of its foliage for the cool season, looking even more scraggly than in the warm.


One option is counterintuitive.  Site Salvia dombeyi in a prominent spot, but not one in direct view of your daily wanderings in the garden: As the focus of a side garden, so there's no question that, even though the plant is a mess in the off season, it will be worth such relatively prime real estate when the show is underway. 


Or grow the plant in a large container that you keep out of regular view—at the morning-sun-only side of the vegetable garden, say—until flowering is imminent.  Then move to your proudest location. 


Keep in mind that, unless you're gardening in a favored locale with gentle temperatures and prevalent mist, Salvia dombeyi requires some shade, not just to prevent leaf scorch but also to keep the plant cooler and to reduce the risk of the sporadically dry soil that would stunt growth.


Dappled sun, rich soil that never dries out, temperatures that rarely rise above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, nor fall below 40.  In short, nearly an impossibility for the steamy hot Summers of the East Coast.

How to handle it: The Basics

As an annual, grow Salvia dombeyii as you would a caladium:  In rich soil in dappled shade and with excellent drainage; let the top of the soil dry out, but just a bit, before you worry about watering.


As a perennial, also plant in rich soil, but to ensure excellent drainage over the Winter, never site on level ground.  Choose a location with a slope, even the slightest, so that excess surface water will always just be passing through, not settling in to encourage rot.  


Wait until Spring to cut old stems back to a foot or two.  As always with plants that are only semi-hardy, violating the integrity of the stems by cutting them back in the Fall is always an invitation to cold water to collect in the base of the plant, or even shunt directly down to the roots.  Don't cut back, however, until the plant has started into growth: Let it wake up before you do anything drastic.


Giving this quick-growing plant the support it needs is somewhat of a puzzle.  If growing Salvia dombeyi in a container, the support will need to be anchored right in the pot.  Some sort of trellis is better than staking:  The slender stems don't have enough foliage, branching, or crooks to rest against stakes and, in any event, there are too many of them.  Remember that the stems may well elongate to six feet or more over a single season, and support from the trellis will be necessary for all but the top foot or so.


In its natural habitat, Salvia dombeyi scrambles up through its neighbors.  This isn't practical when growing this already-large plant in a container unless the container is immense.  Some May, I'll drag a 45-gallon nursery pot under the pergola in my red garden, and plant it with Salvia dombeyi, a trio of Hedychium 'Fiesta', with, what the heck, Philodendron 'Black Cardinal' at the front.  If the cane-like stems of the Hedychium aren't as successful at propping up the Salvia, such a huge container will support any needed size of trellis at the back.  Gardeners in frost-free climates could try the same combination directly in the ground.  Or what about experimenting with training the Salvia up through the limbs of a free-range Podocarpus?

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

If you grow Salvia dombeyi in a sturdy nursery pot, you can combine the large-as-possible growth resulting from life a garden bed with an easy dig-up to bring the plant into shelter before any danger of frost.  I've used a seven-gallon pot, but next season I'll try a ten-gallon.  It's likely you'll be attempting to move the plant into shelter while it's still in bloom, so you won't want to cut it back to make the transit easier.


Growth will probably slow dramatically, so water only when necessary.  When growth resumes in late Winter or Spring, cut all stems down to a foot or so.  Don't return the plant to the garden until the Spring weather has reliably settled.


If only Salvia dombeyi weren't so fussy, so particular about its needs.  Then again, if it were easier, and you could see thriving plants about town as you did your errands, would you want to grow this extraordinary salvia in your own garden more, or less?


There are so many salvias!  Flowers can be white, blue, pink, raspberry, apricot, yellow, orange, red, burgundy, or near-black—and are often more colorful still because they arise out of an equally colorful (but, often, contrastingly hued) calyx.  Only iris and orchids have a wider palette.  Habits can be low and bushy, more like lavender and catmint, to sparse and vertical, to broad, thick, and shrub-like at almost any height.  So few, alas, are hardy below Zone 7—but most of them will flower the same season even as small rooted cuttings, so succeed even as annuals. 


That said, the tenderness of most of the truly cool salvias is one of the more challenging parts of gardening where it's colder than Zone 7.  Wondering what your options really are?   Flowers by the Sea is a nursery that prides itself on having over a hundred salvias to choose from.


Other must-haves for 2013?  In Salvia mexicana 'Compton's Form', the same blue flowers of 'Limelight' emerge from black calyces.  Not eggplant, not blue.  Black.  ('La Placita' seems identical.)  S. discolor has silver calyces and flowers that are themselves black.


There are always more flavors to savor.  If you find that you can't do without fewer than three or four salvias, soon you won't be able to do with fewer than eight to ten.  Then fifteen to twenty.  I'm already at Level Two of salvia addiction: eight to ten.




By cuttings in Spring and Summer.

Native habitat

Salvia dombeyi is native to to Peru and Bolivia.

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