2010-12-02 / News

The last dance for the lady in red

Flotsam and Jetsam
By Donna Drago

The party’s nearly over for my lady in red. She’s still hanging on with every bit of energy she has, but the frosts of the past few days have turned her leaves bronze at the tips and the flowers – thousands of them – are drooping like so many deflated balloons.

At this time of year, when most of the garden has packed up and called it a night, my pineapple sage is the sole belle of the ball. At five-feet tall and just as wide, she calls attention to herself from every window on the south side of the house. Visitors stare and inquire about the magnificent plant all by herself, amidst the dying, the drooping and the already cutback perennials.

I have grown a single plant of pineapple sage every year for at least two decades. In the spring, I pick up a tender sprout at a garden center and find a place for it in the perennial border where I will be able to see it from the kitchen windows. I do this because as the temperatures drop and the other plants return to the earth for the winter, the pineapple sage remains and cheers me up on even the gloomiest days.

After I plant her in the bed, the rest of the perennials do their wonderful thing for the entire summer. With so much going on and the cacophony of color that the garden brings, sometimes I forget about the pineapple sage. Its foliage grows fairly slowly and blends into the background when other plants are taking their turn at blooming. Sometime I step on it when I am puttering around or dead-heading something nearby, and when you do that – whether step on it or brush by it – you immediately know it’s there by its incredible, tropical scent. It’s not an easy plant to ignore.

It doesn’t really get going until early October, when it sends out panicles of scarlet buds. Each bud blooms into a tubular shape – not spectacular individually, but the overall effect is stunning. As the other plants in the yard fade away, the pineapple sage is where you look to find the bees and the hummingbirds. The hummingbird hawk moths and all manner of butterfl ies enjoy it too. Sometimes I stand a few feet away from it just to listen to the hum of a hundred wings.

One year when the garden was more or less done for the winter, I went out to cut it back and was scolded by a hummingbird that raced to its rescue. There were only a handful of blossoms left, but the hummer apparently thought they belonged to her. She met me at eye level – just a foot from my nose – and made an angry sound. “Fine,” I said and left the plant to die back on its own.

The pineapple sage, salvia elegans, is a perennial in zones 8 and 9, but can only be grown as an annual in Rhode Island’s climate. Still, even in one season it will grow to giant proportions and sport thick, woody stems. Every few years it self-sows and I will find a stray plant several feet from the last place I planted one – but this is rare.

To grow your own, pick a sunny, well-drained spot at the back of the border or in the middle of an island bed so it doesn’t shade out smaller plants. Give it a few feet in each direction to spread to its full magnificence. Then just wait. Next November you will have guests for Thanksgiving and they will stare out the windows inquiring about the gigantic mound covered with red blossoms. It’s something you can be thankful for.

The plant is edible and can be used fresh to make tea, or dried and added to potpourri. I know someone who makes a pound cake flavored with the pineapple-scented leaves. A single sprig placed in a tropical beverage – like a pina colada or a rum punch – adds to the overall enjoyment. Sometimes I pick a few tall stems and add them to a flower arrangement because the scent of pineapple can be detected from several feet away.

Some growers suggest overwintering the plants by cutting them back and mulching heavily with several inches of chopped plant material, but I don’t do this because the results are hit or miss. It’s always easy to find a new, fresh pot and to start the process all over again.

Today, the lady in red is in the final throes of what has been a long, wonderful gardening season. It’s just 38 degrees as I write this, and the morning sun is shining through the blossoms, giving each a blue-tinged aura. Winter is on its way, but my lady in red is still dancing.

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