Going to a horticultural conference is energizing. The day before I left to go to the Salvia Summit II in March at Huntington Botanical Gardens in Pasadena, I was invigorated by the idea of a journey, the idea of inspiration, and the idea of experiencing new perspectives, new places, and new people—all related to one of my deepest passions: plants. The morning I traveled to the three-day conference in Southern California, a good and gardening friend gave me a care package for the trip. In it she had placed a card saying, “May you wholly enjoy this wonderful immersion into salvias with your tribe.”
By “tribe” of course she meant that informal feeling of family one has with people of like minds and interests. People who speak your heart’s language.
I’ve attended quite a few botanical/horticultural conferences over the years, but never before had I been to a conference that focused on just one genus. Like most of us with a plant proclivity, I am always eager to learn more, but I will admit to some nervousness about fitting in—and my ability to follow every technicality of every talk on the Salvia Summit II roster. The conference, well orchestrated by a diverse group of enthusiastic salvia experts including Kathy Musial of the Huntington, Ernie Wasson of Cabrillo College, Bart O’Brien of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden, and Ginny Hunt of Seedhunt.com, exceeded all of my expectations and realized none of my fears.
Announcing the summit a few months ago on Pacific Horticulture.org, I wrote, “The Salvia genus offers just about everything a gardener might want: prismatic colors, heady perfumes, sensual textures and complex flavors; they can be hardy, tender, diminutive or expansive… I grow a mere 20+ species in my home garden and this doesn’t scratch the surface of this vast genus, which is the largest in the mint (Lamiaceae) family and boasts around 900 total species and many, many more cultivars.”
The ever-more-clear differences within the genus, research on the genus and new information on the range and dispersal of salvia around the world is all meaty stuff and at the heart of the Summit’s mission.
Part of the fun of plants of course is their remarkable diversity; part of the fun of going to a plant conference is the remarkable diversity of people attending even a genus-specific event. The people speaking and attending Salvia Summit II comprised small independent growers, large commercial growers, plantsmen, plantswomen, graduate school researchers, public garden curators and policy makers, national salvia collection holders, horticultural educators, authors, garden writers, garden club representatives, and home gardeners. The 90 of us came from near and far to be there.
The speakers paid their own way and donated their time to be part of the gathering, which I found to be a testament to their excellence and eagerness to share new research and continue learning. It was heartening to see newer growers, researchers, and writers deep in conversation with the more established ones and made me realize what an important incubator events like this are for the richness of the field in general.
While most of the talks included solid technical information about salvia botany, chemistry, and ecology, it was far from intimidating; this informa- tion is precisely what captured my interest and stretched me in a satisfying way as a plant lover. The information and perspectives shared deepened my understanding and appreciation of Salvia, and plants in general.
The progression of speakers throughout the weekend worked particularly well to ease attendees into the topic and build knowledge. On Friday, after welcoming remarks by friendly MCs Kathy Musial and Ernie Wasson, the basic botanical characteristics of salvia were covered by biologist Scott Zona of Florida International University, and set the stage for better comprehension of the subsequent talks.
A handful of the speakers discussed specific attributes of the genus, and sometimes even of specific species: Jack Hurd of the Alaska Crime Lab talked about the chemistry of salvia withparticular focus on the hallucinogenic properties of Salvia divinorum, and its control and identification. Aaron Jenks, PhD discussed the ethnobotany of salvia in “Medicinal Plant Complexes within the Salvia subgenus Calosphace.” John Whittlesey, author of the upcoming book, The Plant Lovers Guide to Salvia, from Timber Press guided us through the distinct and ingenious staminal lever pollination mechanism of many salvia and the plants’ evolutionary symbiotic relationship with specific pollinators.
Staminal lever mechanism in salvia
When a pollinator of the correct size and shape reaches the very back of the corolla, where it might find nectar, it hits a lever there which then causes the stamens—loaded with pollen—to close down from above onto the back or the sides of the pollinator where a small portion of pollen is meted out. Herethe mechanism is shown in action with a honey bee on Salvia lavandulifolia.
Another set of speakers focused on salvia within specific geographic regions, creating a global field trip in just two days: young, bright, and earnest Rolando Uria (www.salvias.com.ar) presented on the diversity of Salvia in Argentina, his successful pursuit of seeing several rare species in the wild for himself, and collecting seed and cuttings to trial in his Buenos Aires home garden. Mark Porter, who is helping to write the Salvia portion of the upcoming Flora of North America project, went through the “Salvias of North America” and new developments in research. And we heard about “Salvia of California” from Bart O’Brien of Rancho Santa Ana. Australian Sue Templeton, a long-time grower, described cultivating salvia in her country.
The regional talks were rounded out on Saturday by one on the vast subject of “Salvias in Western Mexico” by another young field researcher, Jesus Gonzales, of the Universidad de Guadalajara. Frank Fischer, an independent grower and educator from Germany, described “Growing Salvias in Europe.” Ernst van Jaarsveld of Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden, South Africa, brought the conference to an edifying close covering the “Habitat, Ecology, Diversity and Ornamental Potential of South African Salvias.”
As a home gardener, it was both exhilarating and exhausting to follow the complexity of this large genus: its subdivision into four distinct geographical groups and perhaps three different branches or clades (the ancestral lines from which each branch has grown), the nuances of each group, and the ongoing discussions to reclassify some and consider adding other plants based on phylogenetic studies (in this case, studying the evolutionary relationship between each species currently thought to be Salvia).
Our keynote speaker on Saturday evening, following a delicious Greek meal, was Panayoti Kelaidis, senior curator and director of outreach at the Denver Botanic Garden, who walked us through “Growing Salvias on the Steppes of America.” He emphasized how well-adapted the many dry-land salvias native to the European steppes are to arid areas of the United States.
Sitting in a very comfortable, dimmed meeting room traveling the world of salvia exploration and research through PowerPoint presentations might seem anathema; ours was more than an enjoyable armchair experience. We got out into the area to see salvias (and truly world class gardens and exhibits) in situ at several public gardens, including the Huntington Botanical Gardens in Pasadena; Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Gardens in Claremont; and Fullerton Arboretum in Fullerton.
Entrée into these gardens with knowledgeable and friendly tour guides whom you’ve had a few days to get to know is absolutely the icing on the cake of a conference like this. To walk around Huntington Botanical Gardens with Curator of Plant Collections Kathy Musial, or have Director of Special Projects Bart O’Brien of Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden chatting happily with you about the development of the spaces and collections you are walking through is to a plant lover something like making a spiritual pilgrimage to your own version of Mecca—accompanied cheerily by your tribe. I returned home refreshed and reinvigorated.