Salvia lanceolata


Family : Lamiaceae (mint & sage family)
Common names : rusty sage, lance-leaf sage (Eng.); rooisalie (Afr.)

Image of Salvia lanceolata flowers

A lovely grey-green aromatic shrub with rusty red flowers for most of the year; rewardingly easy to grow and water-wise.

Image of S. lanceolata leavesDescription
Salvia lanceolata is a relatively quick-growing, upright shrub, reaching up to 2 m. Stems are herbaceous becoming woody and, like all members of this family, are square-shaped. Leaves are aromatic, opposite, narrowly paddle-shaped, grey-green and lightly hairy. Flowers are mostly in pairs in short spikes, clustered at the tips of branches, a dull rose-red to rusty crimson or greyish blue, 25-35 mm long with the upper lip 17 mm long. The shape of the flower is typical of the sage family, with a two-lipped corolla, the upper lip hooded and the lower lip turned down at the edge, giving the impression of a gaping mouth. The filaments of the stamens are hinged, which gives them mobility, allowing them to attach pollen to visiting pollinators. It has a long flowering period, flowers occurring from spring (September) throughout summer and autumn to early winter (June). The calyx is funnel-shaped, also two-lipped, and is dotted with glands and short hairs. The calyx is persistent, meaning that it remains on the plant after the corolla has been shed. This adds vastly to the attractiveness of the plant, because the calyx turns a deeper shade of red than the corolla and it enlarges while the seeds are developing, becoming papery thin and very attractive-every bit as showy as the flowers. Four small, round, light brown, nut-like seeds are formed inside the calyx, turning dark brown when mature and simply dropping out when dry and ripe.

Conservation status
Salvia lanceolata is not threatened.

Distribution and habitat
Salvia lanceolata commonly occurs in fynbos on coastal sands and limestone and on rocky outcrops or hillsides in the Western Cape and Northern Cape, from the Cape Peninsula and Montagu to Namaqualand.

Derivation of name and historical aspects
Salvia is derived from the Latin, salvus, meaning safe or well or sound, (verb salvere, to be in good health), referring to the healing properties of the plant. The species name, lanceolata, is also Latin and means lance- or spear-shaped, referring to the shape of the leaves.

The genus Salvia consists of ± 900 species widely distributed in the warm temperate and tropical regions of the world. There are 27 species found naturally in South Africa, and one European and three tropical American species that have naturalized here. Some other noteworthy South African sages are Salvia africana-lutea (golden sage/ bruinsalie ), S. africana-caerulea (blue sage), S. chamelaeagnea (rough blue sage), S. muirii and S. thermarum (Goudini sage) to mention only a few. Many species of sage are grown as ornamentals. Salvia officinalis, from the Mediterranean, is the commonly used culinary herb, sage.

Image of S. lanceolata pollination mechanisms

The flowers of many salvias attract bees, and are adapted to the bees to carry out pollination. The lower lip of the flower is a platform on which the bee lands. As the bee probes for nectar, it presses against the hinged filament of the stamen, which causes the stamen to move down and the anther to touch the bee, thus rubbing pollen off onto the bee's back. When the bee enters another flower of the same species, the pollen from the first flower will rub against the stigma of the second flower, and if it is ripe, cross pollination will be successful. However, in Salvia lanceolata, the lower lip does not form a platform but bends downwards and backwards, and the flower is more elongated and tube-like, and the long, hooded upper lip places the anthers and stigma further from the entrance to the flower than the length of a bee. All this and its reddish colour indicate that this salvia is pollinated by birds. The hinge mechanism of the stamens still works, but in this case it is the bird's beak that pushes against the hinged filament while probing for nectar, causing the stamens to move down and deposit the pollen on the head of the bird. In their study, Wester & Claßen-Bockhoff (2007) observed the Lesser Double Collared Sunbird Nectarinia chalybea, and the Cape White-eye Zosterops pallidus visiting Salvia lanceolata flowers at Kirstenbosch NBG.

Uses and cultural aspects
Most sages contain essential oils and have long been used for food flavouring and medicine all over the world. The southern African species are widely used in traditional medicine to treat chest complaints, stomach complaints and digestive disturbances, women's ailments, fever, and as disinfectant antiseptic washes and lotions for skin infections and wounds. The lance-leaf sage is not known to be used medicinally, but the leaves can be used in cooking, they have a peppery lemon scent and are good with fish.

Image of S. lanceolata flowers

Growing Salvia lanceolata

This plant is easy to grow and fuss-free. It needs full sun and well-drained soil, do not over water once established as it is really water-wise. Although naturally rounded, a little pruning will keep the plant neat and bushy, and prevent it from becoming too woody. Feed with regular applications of compost/mulch. Salvias do well in most areas of South Africa, adapting well to local conditions as they are so hardy. They will also tolerate frost as they are capable of resprouting from the base as a mechanism to recover from fynbos fires, so similarly they will be able to recover suitably from frost damage.

Salvia lanceolata is suitable as a specimen plant or used in an informal shrub border. It does well in containers and in rockeries, on verges or on slopes. It is perfect for fynbos gardens, coastal gardens and water-wise gardens, and is an interesting addition to the herb garden.

Propagate by seed or cuttings. Sow seed in autumn or spring, use a suitable well-drained medium. Germination is quick and seedlings can be potted up as soon as the first pair of true leaves has formed. Stem cuttings should be taken in spring, from new growth that is just firming up into semi-hardwood. Use rooting hormone and a mist unit with bottom heat to ensure a higher success rate.

References and further reading

  • Goldblatt, P. & Manning, J. 2000. Cape plants. A conspectus of the Cape flora of South Africa. Strelitzia 9. National Botanical Institute, Cape Town and Missouri Botanical Garden Press, Missouri.
  • Leistner, O.A. (ed.). 2000. Seeds plants of southern Africa : families and genera. Strelitzia 10. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
  • Manning, J. & Goldblatt, P. 1996. West coast. South African Wildflower Guide. Botanical Society of South Africa, Cape Town.
  • Wester, P. & Claßen-Bockhoff, R. 2007. Floral diversity and pollen transfer mechanisms in bird-pollinated Salvia s pecies. Annals of Botany doi:10.1093/aob/mcm036 (


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