Eric’s Pet Plant: Canna and Mealy-cup Sage (Canna species and Salvia farinacea)

canna pretoria and salvia farinacea victoria blue

Eric's Salvia farinacea 'Victoria Blue' and Canna x 'Pretoria'

We are in the season of summing up and looking ahead. Half-empty types (that would be me) are making careful notes of what failed to thrive, what failed to please and why. Those with sunnier dispositions (that would be our friend Eric, over at Yale) are reflecting on their successes and planning repeats.

Canna and Mealy-cup Sage  (Canna species and Salvia farinacea)

By Eric Larson

The  Canna x ‘Pretoria’ and Salvia farinacea ‘Victoria Blue’ are contrasting in just the way I was looking for in our sunny perennial border. This first year has been a struggle, as the soils have been badly damaged by greenhouse construction, but we look forward to better years ahead.

I had no idea when I planted these two plants together that they are native to the same area: tropical and sub-tropical America, ranging from Texas all the way to South America.  I was just looking for textural and color contrast.  The violet-blue spikes of the Salvia with the broad chartreuse and green leaves of the Canna are a combination worth repeating next year.

Mealy-cup Sage, Salvia farinacea

is a herbaceous perennial from one to two feet tall and wide. It will over-winter in USDA Zones 9 and 10, but must be dug up and protected here or treated as an annual. The leaves of most sage (Salvia) plants are very tomentous, which is a botanical word for ‘hairy.’ But the leaves of our plant are somewhat shiny and distinctly glabrous, or non-hairy. (These words can be used to good effect for the veiled insult: The Colonel once referred to my head as a ‘glabrous pate.’)

Mealy-cup Sage does best in full sun, in good rich soil, and will bloom throughout the summer provided it is kept deadheaded. Plants can be purchased, but they are also easy to grow from seed as long as you have enough light to start early. (Sown in the beginning of March, then moved into larger pots as they grow, they should be close to blooming size in May or early June.)

After the first light frost, dig up a plant or two and pot them up in as large a pot as your orangerie will allow. You can take cuttings from them in February and March, which will give you a jump on the season next year: cuttings will mature more quickly than seed.

They can be used in the border as you see in the photograph, as an accent, in pots and in meadows. Mealy-cup sage also makes a really good cut flower, providing a spiky dark blue (or silver or white) accent to the arrangement.

Salvia, the Latin name for this plant, is related to the word salvus, which means safe, referring to its healing properties. There are between 700 and 900 species in the genus, mostly herbaceous perennials and annuals, with a few shrubs thrown in. Each of these species has different medicinal qualities.

Our plant has been used for poor circulation and menopause symptoms, to treat anxiety, depression and liver disorders, as an antiseptic gargle for laryngitis and tonsillitis and as a breath freshener and teeth cleanser.  As always, please consult a licensed quack or a witch doctor with a diploma on the wall before using herbal remedies. In no way am I espousing the use of herbal remedies alone for what ails you.

All Salvia species are known for leaves that are aromatic when crushed. This quality and the square stem (as well as the flower structure) help to place the plant firmly within the ranks of the Mint family, Lamiaceae.


is a rhizomatous perennial, with broad leaves and flower spikes that emerge throughout the summer here. It is tropical or sub-tropical in nature, so must be lifted in the fall to prevent it from dying from the cold in our zone.

It will take some shade in the tropics but is best planted in full sun for us. Plants in a wide assortment of sizes and prices are sold at nurseries in spring, but they can also be purchased as rootstock in garden centers and by mail order. Rootstocks are more economical than plants and will put on size quickly if given plentiful water, fertilizer and sunshine.

Cannas can be planted in the border as an accent or focal point. But if you live in the frost belt and want to keep them going, remember when setting out that they will have to be dug up in fall and stored frost free over winter.

They also do well in pots, tolerating considerable crowding as long as they are well watered and fed. Or you could put them in the vegetable garden; the roots are a good source of starch and are a staple in many tropical areas around the world.

The genus name is from the Greek word kanna, for ‘reed,’ although some sources have it from Celtic roots. It is the only member of the Canna family, Cannaceae. Its closest relatives are other plants in the order Zingiberales, which includes similarly showy plants like ginger, banana, and bird-of-paradise.

I would appreciate anyone chiming in who has eaten canna. What does it taste like? Could you recommend any recipes? Can it be preserved  – “I don’t feel like cooking tonight, hon. Can I open a can o’ canna?”  Does it go well with chicken?

There are scores of varieties of horticultural Cannas, with different color flowers (mostly hot colors: orange, yellow, and red, though there are also some pinks and  whites). Leaves also come in quite an assortment of colors and patterns, and plants may be anywhere from two to ten feet tall.

The one in our garden here is ‘Pretoria,’ with the lovely gold-striped chartreuse leaves. I like them better than I do the flowers.  Plant tall, red flowered cannas if you want to attract hummingbirds. They love the red-flowered varieties, and having the flowers held well off the ground helps prevent cat predation.

Disclaimer: These columns are well-meaning but flawed creations of the author, whose ardent secular humanist and socialist views are in no way reflective of Yale University, Marsh Botanical Garden, Leslie Land –  or his family and friends.

Lagniappe: Eric’s photo shows a flower stalk but not the flower, which he may or may not have removed. If you want to let them bloom you’re probably better off surrounding them with flowers that can take the heat. LL

canna pretoria in flower

Canna 'Pretoria' in flower in Maine, with 'Starfire' phlox and tiger lilies.

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  • jeje Said,


  • Dottie Said,

    Recently moved to Las Vegas with my family and trying to ascertain what are the plants in my backyard and how they might be used. If I can’t eat them or use them medicinally, I want to eliminate them and plant something more useful. I researched (through images) one of my plants and determined it to be mealy-cup sage (with dark purple flowers, like the one in your picture). In your write-up on this plant you indicated that you have used it medicinally. I am interested in specifically how it was prepared (what part? dried? fresh? heated? steeped? etc)? I understand that you are not advocating the use of this plant for treatment and I release you from any liability. I just want to make sure it’s not toxic and if it might have the same kind of calming properties as lavender, or???

    Thanks for your response!
    Dottie Rice, Certified Nutritional Therapist
    Las Vegas, NV

  • Eric Larson Said,

    Unfortunately my wording in the paragraph might have given you the impression that I have used this plant medicinally. When I said “Our plant…” I meant ‘This week’s plant…” For this rather poor use of the language, I apologize.
    I have NOT used it medicinally, but I have researched carefully this morning and come up with no reference or mention of it having any poisonous effects. Look up the web-site for Michael Moore at the Southwestern School for Botanical Medicine for more about the uses of this plant, and many more for your area. I like the premise that you are starting with, and would like to hear how it goes.

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