Blooming in May: Lyre-leaf Sage

Salvia lyrata blooming on Greenway Ave. in Charlotte
  • Common Name: Lyre-leaf Sage
  • Botanical Name: Salvia lyrata
  • Plant Type: Perennial herb
  • Typical Bloom Period: April-May
  • Nectar Usefulness: good
  • Pollen Usefulness: good

“Kick Me” is what we would write on the paper with tape, and a gentle pat on the back would mark the victim in such a way that s/he couldn’t see or remove it. You might think of the word “note” and then of the word “nototribic”. The Salvia genus of flowers are nototribic, and they are blooming in Mecklenburg County.

Worldwide, there are about 900 species of the genus Salvia. In Mecklenburg County, our most common native species of salvia is S. lyrata, “lyre-leaf sage” or “cancer weed”. They have purple-veined leaves in a rosette at the base which are irregularly lobed, and shaped a bit like a lyre. A square stem stands 1-2 feet tall, covered in sticky hairs and irregular whorls of flowers. The flowers are bilabial — they have an upper lip and a lower lip. They range in color from very pale lavender to rich blue. Wild S. lyrata is most often found along the edges of disturbances.

Cultivated varieties of Salvia are very popular in southern flower gardens. Favorites include “black and blue” S. guarantica, originally from South America, and “hot lips” S. microphylla, originally from Mexico. These varieties bloom later in the year than natives, and they serve to feed our bees through the summer months.

Salvia flowers need bees to transfer pollen grains from the anthers to the stigmas. But every grain that the bees collect and take away is then unavailable for the reproduction of the flower. To combat the loss, our flowers slap a “note” of pollen onto the back of the bee in such a way that she cannot work it around to her corbiculae in mid-flight, so ensuring that she will carry it to the next flower. As the bee enters the floor of the flower to reach the nectary, she presses her head against a lever-shaped stamen and the other four stamens are pushed down to deposit pollen on her back, where she cannot reach it. Because of this staminal lever mechanism, salvia has been the subject of considerable study.

Pollen transfer in S. pratensis L. (schematic, after Meeuse and Morris 1984).

If you observe your cultivated salvia, hoping to see the lever in action, you might observe carpenter bees, Xylocopa virginica, working the tops of the flowers, on the outside. They are biting through the petals to reach the nectar within, bypassing the staminal lever mechanism entirely. Our honey bees will often use the holes that the carpenter bees have bitten to gather nectar only.

S. lyrata blooms through April and May in Mecklenburg County. In Garden Plants for Honey Bees, Peter Lindtner rates most Salvia species as good sources of both pollen and nectar; he includes a fine photograph of a bee biting through the top of a flower.

The August 2007 issue of Annals of Botany (Volume 100, Issue 2) is devoted to the morphology of salvia, and would be a good place to start more intensive research.


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