- Division: Tracheophyta
- Class: Magnoliopsida
- Order: Lamiales
- Family: Lamiaceae
- Genus: Salvia
- Species: africana-lutea
Stroll along a beach on South Africa’s western or southern Cape, and you’re likely to see this unusual salvia growing wild. It’s common on coastal sand dunes, scrub, hillsides, and fynbos, where its nectar-rich flowers attract sunbirds, bees, moths, and butterflies—but not hummingbirds, because all hummingbird species live in the Americas.
In Africa, the sunbirds fill the role that hummingbirds play here. Their long, curved bill and long tongue are just right for dipping into a tubular flower and sipping nectar, pollinating this plant in the process. When a sunbird pokes it bill into a flower, pollen rubs off onto the bird’s back or head. When the stigma (female reproductive structure) is mature, it bends forward, forcing a feeding sunbird to rub against it. If the sunbird is carrying pollen from a previous flower, some of the pollen sticks to the stigma and cross-pollinates the plant. (In many of the other salvias, flowers are smaller, and bees are the pollen carriers.)
Beach salvia is an evergreen, perennial shrub that tends to grow about 3 to 4 feet (100 to 120 centimeters) tall and 4 to 6 feet (120 to 180 centimeters) wide. Its woody stems bear small (1- to 2-inch, or 2.5- to 5- centimeter) leaves that are gray-green and aromatic. Flowers grow in clusters at the ends of stems. A just-bloomed yellow flower emerges from a wide purplish calyx, but the flower soon turns rusty-orange and the calyx turns brick-brown. The attractive calyces stay on the stem long after the actual flowers fade and fall.
Welcome birds, bees, and butterflies to your garden with this fragrant, fast-growing, salvia. No garden? It also does well in large pots. In Southern California, it flowers sporadically throughout the year, especially spring and fall. This is a good choice for coastal gardens, windy areas, and rock gardens. Plant it in full sun or very light shade, and water it regularly until it is established. After that, this drought-hardy plant needs very little water. It grows best in well-drained soil and benefits from compost and mulch. It doesn’t like to freeze, but tolerates some frost; a frost-damaged, seemingly dead plant may resprout from the rootstock.