Scarlet Sage is No Money Tree, But It Does Have Leverage

23 Jul

Scarlet Sage
Salvia coccinea

Billy is in North Carolina. John is vacationing in Maryland, thus the momentary dip in photo quality. That left me all lonesome to go visit Green Cay Wetlands CLICK in Delray Beach, home of the friendliest water birds in town and huge native aquatic plants on steroids, well actually on reclaimed sewer water. (Come to think of it, sewer water does contain steroids, but this is a nice blog so we’ll just forget about that.)

Very few plants at Green Cay are wild, but it is a terrific venue to see swampy-marshy natives from the comfort of an elevated boardwalk. Alligator Flag, Pickerel Weed, Arrow Arum, Water Lilies, and Sagittaria galore. Sedges in sedge heaven. A special treat yesterday was Scarlet Hibiscus puttin’ on the ritz, and frankly Scarlet, there’salso  a pretty planting of Scarlet Sage, today’s highlight.

There’s something special about the Mint Family, the Lamiaceae (aka Labiatae). Maybe it’s the square stems, or the minty essences, or the culinary herbs, or those two-lipped flowers. That’s all obvious. Something else about the Mint Family you seldom see are the weird little ovaries which become the fruits. Each flower produces four “nutlets” surrounding what’s called a gynobasic style—the style extends to the floor of the flower between the nutlets. The style and four-nutlet ovary look like a four eggs on a saucer with a straw pushed down between them to the saucer. (You can see this in the diagram below with two of the four nutlets visible.) Spot that and you will end all argument as to whether a plant belongs to the Mint Family, at least in a traditional sense.

Salvis coccinea, unfortunately not by JB

Salvia is a jumbo genus of maybe 800 species, give or take, with some Salvia familiar to almost everybody as culinary sage, or as garden flowers, or as wildflowers, or as something to smoke. The Mexican hallucinogenic Salvia divinorum has been sending people on trips for a long time; it may be a human-influenced hybrid or cultigen. But back to Florida!

Salvia coccinea is a lovely wildflower popular in wild places, restored places, and in cultivation. The flowers are mostly scarlet, although cultivars exist with pink blossoms and white ones. We think of it as a native annual or perennial wildflower that pleases gardeners by attracting hummingbirds, tolerating shade, and by self-seeding, but it is an invasive exotic elsewhere, such as Madagascar.

The Salvia lever system at work. This diagram is not Salvia coccinea, although the system in S. coccinea is the same (but not worked by bees). Credit for diagram is given at end of post.

The fun thing to know about Salvias is their tippy pollination mechanism, which no doubt has something to do with their diversification into so many species, with the system “adjusted” for different pollinators in different species. The floral lever system looks like an upside-down teeter-totter with the fulcrum attached to the roof of the flower tube. The lever is a stamen. The anther is at one end of the lever, held above the floral entrance vestibule. The other end of the lever is deep within the flower blocking access to the nectar. When the correct pollinator enters or pushes its beak inward, the inner end of the lever is shoved upward, bringing the outer anther-end downward into contact with the visitor, patting it with pollen.

Next time you get around a Salvia, and you will, open the flower and find the lever.

Credit for the diagram: The staminal lever mechanism in Salvia L. (Lamiaceae): a key innovation for adaptive radiation? Regine Classen-Bockhoff et al. Organisms, Diversity & Evolution 4(3): 189. 2004.

George’s wife-on-steroids Donna and friend


Posted by on July 23, 2012 in Scarlet Sage


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4 responses to “Scarlet Sage is No Money Tree, But It Does Have Leverage

  1. Mary Hart

    July 28, 2012 at 4:27 am

    Love this family – always remember the delight on a young pupil’s face when he saw the flower parts of Lamium album, white deadnettle, under the microscope – from one angle they look a bit like a bedroom slipper! also the Lamiaceae are such good attractants of pollinators to the fields and gardens.

  2. George Rogers

    July 28, 2012 at 7:46 am

    Agreed 100%!

  3. annsbirdventures

    July 30, 2012 at 7:54 am

    This is one of my favorite plants in our yard, mainly because it requires so little care – but especially because it helps feed the Painted Buntings during the months they stay with us. They land very delicately on a stem, it bends down, and they very carefully extract the seeds from each flower. What could be easier bird feeding?!
    Ann Weinrich

  4. George Rogers

    July 30, 2012 at 8:50 am

    Thanks Ann, will make a point of remember that! Live and learn, George


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