Salvia ‘Hot Lips’; the wondrous one!

You may have heard about Salvia ‘Hot Lips’? The name is certainly intriguing and actually very apt!

I have used it as my logo from when it first came about and I started my Yoke’s Magic Garden business!

This is what the Royal Horticultural Society has to say about it:

‘Hot Lips’ is a bushy plant, about 100 x 100cm, evergreen if not cut back by frost, with small, ovate, aromatic green leaves. Flowers are borne in loose terminal racemes, red in midsummer, bicolored red and white in July and August, sometimes completely white when the days shorten. Very floriferous in all its colour stages, continuing to the first frost.

But where does it come from?

First we need to know that its full name used to be Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’.

This is what Wikipedia has to say about Salvia microphylla:

Salvia microphylla, the baby sage, Graham’s sage, or blackcurrant sage, is an evergreen shrub found in the wild in southeastern Arizona and the mountains of eastern, western, and southern Mexico. It is a very complex species which easily hybridizes, resulting in numerous hybrids and cultivars brought into horticulture since the 1990s. The specific epithet microphylla, from the Greek, means “small leaved”. In Mexico, it is called “mirto de montes,” or “myrtle of the mountains.”

Here is an example of the many varieties and cultivars there are in the present day:

Salvia ‘Rodbaston Red’ was named by myself when we had the National Collection of New World Salvias at former Rodbaston College in Staffordshire. A very vigorous variety still used and grown to this day in my new nursery!

The Salvia microphylla also crosses with several other wild species in Mexico and the most well known cross since the early 1990s is S. microphylla with the species Salvia greggii, which is now called Salvia x jamensis. This may now have even more cultivars than the original Salvia microphylla species!

After contacting the RHS to find out how this curious plant name came about, I had a reply of Richard Sanford, sending me a link of an article shared by Graham Rice back in 1999 and you can find the original full story here.

But here is an extract of it below and for convenience sake, if you haven’t got the time now, skip this blue block.

The Truth About Salvia ‘Hot Lips’

(Reproduced with the permission of the author, Richard Turner; originally published as the Editorial of the October 2004 issue of Pacific Horticulture)

Our friends had invited us to spend Thanksgiving of 1999 with them and to help them celebrate the completion of renovations to their 400-year-old home, located near the central square in the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

And a bit further in the article:

Alta Gracia, their gracious housekeeper, lived during the week in an apartment on the top floor. Outside her door were pots of all types, filled with an abundance of flowers. One container caught my eye for its clever clustering of a red salvia, a white salvia, and a two-toned salvia whose red and white flowers matched perfectly the colours of the other two. To my surprise, it proved to be only one plant on which some flowers were red, some white, and some bicoloured. Alta Gracia had presented it as a housewarming gift to our friends, but she was a bit cagey on its source. It may have come from a local nursery or from a nearby cemetery, where Alta Gracia admits to occasionally snipping cuttings from grave-site plants or bouquets that catch her eye, and then rooting them for her own garden (she has quite a green thumb).

With everyone’s permission, I took cuttings of the salvia in the last few minutes before departing for the flight home to San Francisco and carefully stowed them in a zip-locked bag. Within a day of returning, the cuttings were in the hands of Don Mahoney, horticulturist at Strybing Arboretum, and the capable volunteers who propagate plants for the monthly and annual sales. The cuttings rooted quickly, and, nine months later, I was presented with the first plant from the group, lush and flowery in a two-gallon pot; it has been flowering more-or-less continuously in my garden ever since. It seems wonderfully garden tolerant, adapting to regular as well as minimal irrigation and accepting both full sun and part shade.

Though some have suggested that pure white flowers tend to be the order in midsummer, I’m convinced that the pattern is dependent upon the age of the flowering stem, as Don first noted. The first flowers on any inflorescence appear pure red. Later buds open bicoloured, with the white beginning at the base of the flower and increasing on the ensuing flowers. The last flowers on each stem are pure white. Since each inflorescence opens only a few flowers at a time, it’s rare to see monotone red and white flowers together. However, if pruned to encourage flowering stems of different ages, as was apparently done in San Miguel, a mix of red, white, and bicoloured flowers will appear on a single plant at the same time. It is that pattern that makes this salvia so distinctive.

The Strybing volunteers asked permission to name this new salvia before offering it at their sales. I had hoped to christen it ‘Alta Gracia’ (meaning “high graces”), but the volunteers chose the name ‘Hot Lips’. They were soon propagating ‘Hot Lips’ by the dozens and selling them at each sale. In scarcely three years since its introduction, it now appears in public and private gardens throughout the West Coast, and is available from numerous nurseries here and, apparently, in other parts of the country.

At the suggestion of Tony Avent, proprietor of North Carolina’s Plant Delights Nursery, Garden Design magazine named ‘Hot Lips’ one of the top one hundred plants of 2004, although it was erroneously listed as a cultivar of Salvia greggii. The consensus seems to be that it is actually Salvia microphylla, with broader, softer, and more scalloped leaves—which are also delightfully aromatic. Both species are native to Mexico, are readily available from nurseries (usually unlabeled), and are common in gardens there.

Though the deeply spiritual Alta Gracia may not approve of the name given to the plant she found, I think she would be happy to know that so many are now enjoying the quirky beauty of Salvia microphylla ‘Hot Lips’.

Some people, especially amongst avid salvia collectors, find the colour combination a bit offensive, brash or cheap. I just think it is hilarious that a plant could mimic itself this way to make a perfect lip shape!

However it does seem to have this habit to disappearing, but, if you did manage to read the articles it seem to have to do with the age of the stem. So early stems will produce red, older stems in mid-summer go ‘Hot Lips’ and towards the end of the season the plant produces white flowers.

The variety itself has proven to be one of the more hardy varieties in the U.K. and this is also due to its progeny or where it originally was found growing. If the interesting flower was not enough, it also has a curious habit of having stems with a red and white striped appearance, which I personally find rather attractive. I think this may help with the plant being more hardy? They are possibly adaptations of the plant to cope with high light levels and drought. Something you can expect in Mexico where it originated.

This plant is a very good investment as it is adaptable to grow in pots when small and when it gets bigger, after its  first winter, it is probably best to plant it on a sunny spot in your garden.

There are also now different varieties of this ‘Hot Lips’ occurrence. They are called: Salvia ‘Pink Lips’, Salvia ‘Cherry Lips’ and Salvia ‘Amethyst Lips’. All these varieties I will hope to be able to have in my collection soon and then offer to you directly from my Salvia nursery in the near future!

All my Shrubby Salvias are cheerful plants and have a very long flowering season, they are loved by bees, are easy to look after, drought resistant and hardy in most years in the U.K. Read more about hardiness in my previous blog here:

For now you can order your ‘Hot Lips-plug plants. Please note that because my nursery is a brand new venture they won’t be available until May and please follow my instructions before ordering!

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