September’s Sensual Salvias – an Interview with Mike Thiede, Regional Plantsman

Mike Thiede gets excited about plants. “You will never guess what I just found?” he said in all excitement the last time I met with him – and he did not wait for me to answer or guess, but continued on describing to me a plant he’d run across that really shouldn’t have been where he found it. He was thrilled. Mike Thiede is a plantsman – and so plants in general do thrill him. But among all the plants that might thrill him, Mike has a special place for Salvia – the genus of plants most closely associated with his name and hybridizing skills in our region. Photo: Tall, blue and furry Salvia leucantha forms a backdrop for red and apricot Salvia greggii hybrids.

A father and husband, Mike is a longtime plantsman in Northern California, former owner of Chico Creek Gardens and Nursery and currently a consulting Plant Specialist in the Chico area. Mike learned his love of plants from his father Norm Thiede, who taught Ornamental Horticulture for Shasta College and Corning High. Mike graduated in Biology from CSU, Chico and over the years has taken several specialized plant science classes at Butte College. However, it is his more than a decade in the industry that has taught him much of what he knows. When Mike ultimately became interested in hybridizing, it was the Salvia that thrilled him most. “They are everything a good plant in the garden should be. They have an amazingly long bloom season – it is not uncommon to see your best garden Salvia blooming more than eight months out of the year – from April through November. Most Salvia thrive in our North State sun and heat, they often have a lovely fragrance and many have strong architectural presence in the garden.” Salvia are a full-five-senses experience. What more could you ask for? Photo: Mike Thiede.

Well – there’s plenty more. Mike goes on. Unlike many plant genera, which can be fairly limited in their color palate, Salvia species and their many hybrids are available in just about any color your might want – from pale creamy white, to deep blue, to luxurious purple, to tender pink, to fire-engine red, to nuanced apricots and corals. Salvia can be quite diminutive and almost ground covers, like the spreading royal blue Salvia ‘Sally Greenwood’ (a cross between S. microphylla X S. chamaedryoides) to the sculptural and stately Salvia apiana, also known as Grandfather sage or white sage, which grows to 5 feet tall and wide and the large, thick silver leaves of which were used in smudge sticks by native americans. Photo: tall, blue and furry Salvia leucantha forms a backdrop for red and apricot Salvia greggii hybrids. Photo: A red Salvia ‘John Whittlesey’ flower in the sunlight.

With plentiful pollen and nectar, Salvia are also pollinator magnets – which is lovely to behold as the gardener, beneficial for the web of life in our region and beneficial to the life of the rest of your garden. Long bloom time – early season to late season – through dampish cool and searing heat, Salvia attract scores of hummingbirds, butterflies, moths, honey bees as well as native bees and hover flies. Photo: The bright and bold foliage of Salvia apiana. Below inset, same with its flower spike.

Salvia – known commonly as sage – is the largest genus in the mint family (Lamiaceae) of plants, comprising perhaps upwards of 900 species and many more hybrids. Native to almost every continent, Salvia includes just under 20 species native to California. The Salvia genus does not include the aromatic shrubs known as sagebrush, which are from the Artemisia genus. Ranging from rugged and hardy in some of the most extreme climates in the world, to tender tropicals, Salvia include specimens to fit just about every garden and gardener. For the most part drought tolerant once established, Salvia like a lot of sun and good drainage. They will thrive in lean or fairly rich soil and while they can go without additional nutrition, Mike Thiede did suggest to me (read: scold) that all of the Salvia in my garden could use some cutting back and a little boost of compost or other balanced fertilizer (triple 10 was his preference) a couple times a year if I wanted them to look their best. By coincidence, a gardening friend recently sent me the link to a good (and funny) article on pruning Salvia by Emily Green in the LA Times. Her advice: BE BOLD. Cut them back – without fear or trepidation and they will thank you for it. Photo: Apricot Salvia greggii hybrid, with bees, and below, S. leucophylla ‘Pinkie.’

Mike Thiede recommends a mid-summer pruning of flowers that are too leggy or simply done and then a hard late-fall or early-winter (if you are enjoying the seed heads on some of the Salvia clevelandii types) prune for more pronounced shaping. “If you let them get too leggy and woody, it is harder to prune them. Cut back spent flower stalks to below dense foliage and thin – especially the greggii varieties – from the center of shrubby plants.” Photo: Above: Salvia greggii cutting; Below: Mike Thiede demonstrating his pruning advice.

A really fun fact for local gardeners? Mike Thiede has in the past 7 to 10 years bred a whole line of Salvia varieties named for some of our favorite local plant celebrities. These include a true deep red, “broad shouldered,” as described by Mike, S. ‘John Whittlesey,’ a royal blue low-growing S. ‘Sally Greenwood,’ a cherry coral red variety named for Courtney Paulson of Magnolia Gift & Garden, S. ‘Courtney’s Coral,’ S. ‘Bob Fabish,’ and S. ‘Mel Belle’ among others. Many Salvias – including many of Mike Thiede’s Salvia, can be seen growing in the water conservation demonstration garden designed and tended by Lifescapes Landscaping on the corner of Sheridan and 1st Avenue in Chico. Many good Salvia can also be seen at the McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens at Turtle Bay in Redding. Photo: Left: Salvia ‘John Whittlesey’, Right: Salvia ‘Sally Greenwood’

Photo: The lush red blooms of tropical sage S. coccinea.
A good selection of Salvia should be available from any good independent nursery or garden center near you. For some of Mike Thiede’s specialty breeds, try Magnolia Gift & Garden (Where you could meet Courtney Paulson or Melynn of S. ‘Mel Belle’), or The Plant Barn, both in Chico.

Further Reading: The following books are excellent references for Salvias and are available from Lyon Books in Chico.

“The New Book of Salvias – Sages for Every Garden,” by Betsy Clebsch

“The Gardeners Guide to Growing Salvias,” by John Sutton

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In a North State Garden is a weekly Northstate Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum – Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell – all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In A North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday mornings at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time. Podcasts of past shows are available here.

Jennifer Jewell
In a North State Garden is a bi-weekly North State Public Radio and web-based program celebrating the art, craft and science of home gardening in Northern California and made possible in part by the Gateway Science Museum - Exploring the Natural History of the North State and on the campus of CSU, Chico. In a North State Garden is conceived, written, photographed and hosted by Jennifer Jewell - all rights reserved jewellgarden.com. In a North State Garden airs on Northstate Public Radio Saturday morning at 7:34 AM Pacific time and Sunday morning at 8:34 AM Pacific time, two times a month.
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1 Response

  1. Avatar dennis says:

    Excellent article. I love learning about Salvias. Another good article can be found at Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, NC at: (www.plantdelights.com/Catalog/Plants/Genus/Salvia)