Salvia divinorum is the queen of magical mysterious plants. She requires patience, understanding, and acceptance of her often terrifying lessons. She won’t tolerate being just a curiosity, or used for thrill seeking behavior. She desires that you create a relationship with her. Even if you have never seen a live Salvia divinorum plant and have only used the dried leaves, that relationship must still be cultivated. Those who choose to not do this are usually scared shitless when they finally do force a breakthrough. But by growing this magical teacher she learns about you and what your intentions are.
Growing her in itself is a magical experience. Yet there is probably no other plant that instills such an utter fear in beginner cultivators. When I went to bring her home from the greenhouse I bought her at, I almost expected to see her in some specially controlled atmospheric chamber with tubes and misting nozzles everywhere, and the dull whine of compressors and life support systems. Instead I was handed this tough looking little plant with a thick stem and yellowish green leaves that was sitting on the table by the door of the greenhouse. In awe of this little plant I brought her home and started to grow her.
One thing to this day has always amazed me about this plant though, its amazing characteristic for adaptability. With the right setup it can not only survive any climate, but you can even go on vacation for two weeks and still see her alive when you come back. Yet not just alive but thriving! In this article I hope to dispel the myths about this wonderful plant and give you some tips on making Salvia divinorum wonderfully easy to grow and care for.
So to start off, I’m going to give you my secret setup that will keep your plant healthy even if you forget to water, mist, or even if you go on vacation for 2 weeks.
The first thing you will need is a very large clay pot. At least one foot in diameter for one plant and the larger pots for 2 or more plants. Remember that salvia like lots of room to spread her roots and doesn’t take well to transplanting too often. Take your rooted cutting or small plant and get it ready for transplanting. Take ¼” polyester rope (must be polyester – nylon or anything else probably won’t work) and put it in a pan of water for 10 minutes. Then feed it through the hole in the bottom of the pot so you only have 1-2 feet of rope hanging out the bottom. Then start spiraling it through the soil in the clay pot.
The easiest way to do this is to put a couple of inches of soil down and circle the rope around a couple inches from the sides and each time it nears itself put another layer of soil in. Remember it’s very important to leave about 1-2 feet of rope hanging out the bottom of the pot when you begin. As you approach the top with layers of soil and circling rope its time to put your rooted cutting or small plant in now. Once its in, keep spiraling the rope up to the top of the soil. Once the soil is level with the soil you transplanted in with the plant take the rope and circle it around the stem of the plant so it is flat with the top of the soil. If you look from the top it should look like a spiral. It should not look like you wrapped your plant in rope.
Then cover with soil till you cannot see the rope anymore. Next find yourself a milk crate or other platform with a hole in it to let the rope go through. Find an empty container around the house and put it under the platform and let the rope hang into it. The closer the water level is to the bottom of the pot the more efficient the wicking will work. Water your plant thoroughly to start the system. There you have it – you have just created a wicking system that will water your plants continuously at a rate they choose. A soil mix that works well with this system is ½ rich dark potting soil, (without vermiculite or perlite added), ¼ vermiculite, and ¼ or a bit more perlite. The richer the potting soil the better, as Salvia grows in very rich soil in its native region. The vermiculite holds moisture and the perlite promotes aeration of the soil and along with the clay pot will make sure enough air gets to the roots.
With the wicking system outlined above you should never have to water the plant ever again, kind of. You do have to fill up the container of water when it gets low. And if the top of the soil dries out you should mist it until it moistens again. But depending on the size of your container you may not have to add water for weeks at a time. Do keep in mind as the water level gets lower, more rope is exposed to the air, and the system becomes less efficient. Nevertheless, it can easily sustain a plant for weeks. You can even add your fertilizer right to the water container.
Now that you have watering under control, the last thing to do is build a humidity tent. This is important, especially if you just received your plant from a greenhouse or made a cutting. At this stage the plant is very used to high humidity and if you don’t keep it in a humidity tent at this point it will die. I get a bunch of 3 foot plastic rods/dowels (wood will work but be careful of mold and rot). I put about 5 in the pot along the sides at the very edge. This will hold up the plastic. Now the best size plastic I have found is the plastic window insulation kits. They are kind of expensive and substituting plastic drop cloths work just as well. The thing I like is that really good double stick tape comes with it. Put a layer of double stick tape to the outside of the clay pot a couple inches from the top. Stick the plastic to the tape and wrap it around the dowels. Take the extra plastic sticking up above the dowels and twist it into a knot.
There you go, you now have a very large pot, a large humidity tent and a teeny weenie little plant. Don’t worry, that’s exactly how it should be. If the humidity tent is too small mold will grow too quickly and not enough carbon dioxide will get to the plant. Once the plant starts growing at a good steady rate you can untie the tent and just leave it draped closed. Let that sit for about 2 weeks. Then start leaving it draped more and more open over the space of another 2 weeks. Finally let the top be completely open and let it grow like that for another 2 weeks. After that take out the dowels and roll the plastic down. You can either take the plastic off completely or leave it attached for when you go on vacation. When the plant no longer has a humidity tent on it make sure you mist it 1-2 times a day for a week. After that, you may reduce the frequency of misting. Once a day is still the best but even if its only once every 3 days it will be O.K., you may just have slight browning of the tips of the leaves. Nothing major though. Depending on where you live and your relative humidity you may need to mist more or less often.
So there it is, the no-brainer Salvia divinorum setup. If you need to go on vacation just put the humidity tent back up, seal it and fill up your container of water that feeds the wicking system. When you get back adapt her back to regular humidity. It won’t take as long as that first time but it still may take a bit of time. You also may want to give everything a good watering at least once a month to refresh the system and wash out any accumulating salts.
The next part of this article will deal with common problems and solutions for growing Salvia divinorum, and a bit of extra info on growing it efficiently. Most of these are my approaches to problems I have experienced that have worked for me. They aren’t guaranteed to work for everyone but they should, very well in fact.
One thing about Salvia divinorum is that she is readily adaptable to many different growing conditions. Everyone seems to think this plant will just keel over if the humidity is any lower then 50%. This is just not true. Salvia divinorum does like humidity, I’ll admit that, but she doesn’t NEED it. She will adapt to very low humidity situations if given time to adapt. The amazing part is that she makes a magical transformation in the way she looks when grown without high humidity.
There is a marked difference in the leaves of plants grown in high and low humidity. The leaves of high humidity plants have a silvery haze around the main vein and are much darker green. They also seem to droop a bit more. Leaves of plants grown in low humidity stand out flat and have a distinct shape and visible texture. They tend to be a bit lighter shade of green. It’s absolutely amazing to me that a plant can completely change appearance with different growing conditions.
One interesting thing is that once a leaf has changed its appearance to a high humidity leaf, it doesn’t go back very easily. When adapting your plant to a new humidity or growing condition it actually needs to grow a whole new set of leaves. That’s why we adapted it in our system above so slowly. Those high humidity leaves will ALWAYS brown at the edges and tips, some more than others. There’s nothing you can do about that. Pick the old leaves off once you get a set of adapted leaves about medium size. These new leaves will be much more resilient to lower humidity conditions. If you want them to go back to being high humidity leaves, put them back in a humidity tent and they will slowly transform. They don’t go back immediately, though. I’ve always wondered if the potency is different between the two types of leaves. Perhaps I’ll find out in a future experiment.
So, if your leaves are browning at the edges and tips, you are either adapting the plant too quickly or you are looking at high humidity leaves. Are your newer low humidity leaves doing the same thing? If they are then you need to think about adjusting the plant more slowly or misting more often. Remember, with each new leaf grown the plant will adapt better and better to the present growing conditions.
Another problem I have encountered and still don’t quite understand is that in the evening my plants inside of the humidity tent will wilt. I cut the plants back and make a cutting, and this stops. I think harvesting a few large leaves also helps. Perhaps the reason this happens is that a high rate of water uptake by the roots is happening when the sun is beating on the leaves. When the light levels go down there isn’t as much transpiration going on, pulling up water, so the cells lose some of their turgidity and the plant wilts a bit. It always seems to perk back up in the morning though..
This section assumes that you did not opt to go with the system I outlined above. If you are watering too much you may be starving the roots for air. A clay pot and perlite in the soil will help avoid this VERY common mistake with Salvia. A sure indication that you are over-watering is the appearance of thin fuzzy roots criss-crossing the top of the soil. Salvia likes moist soil but needs a lot of air in the soil as well. If you are watering too much, or have your pot sitting in a saucer that collects the draining water you will suffocate the roots and will soon have a problem with root rot. Never keep your plant in a saucer to catch draining water. It will wick up through the soil and not let air get to the roots. If you’ve caught the situation before rot sets in just let the soil start drying out. Don’t water until the soil starts drying at the very top. Then water until its moist. It is always a bit tricky to know how much and when to water. That’s why the wicking system works so well. The plant and soil decides when it needs to bring up more water. The dryer the soil gets the more water will be wicked up. If the soil is saturated no more water will be brought up.
If you’ve watered too much for too long or let the plant sit in a pan of water, rot will eventually occur. There is no saving your original plant now. Rot starts at the very bottom of the stem, turning it brown and eventually mushy. The only way to save the plant now is to make as many cuttings as possible. Put them in little containers with moist soil in a plastic bag out of direct sunlight. Let them root and try again. You can root cuttings in various ways, so I won’t go over that, especially since I haven’t found a perfect method myself.
Your Salvia divinorum plant needs light, but not a huge amount. If you adapt her slowly you can get her used to 4-5 hours of direct sunlight a day. But beware of sunburn. Sunburn, at least on my plants, appears as though a brown dye is injected from the stem into the leaves and moves toward the tip. It is a deep brown and is a bit mushy, similar to what rotted leaves or stems look like. You will have to cut the sunburned portion off if it is too bad, or the plant won’t regain its usual growth rate. Currently I have my plants next to a window that gets a ton of indirect sunlight but no direct sun. I think she is doing better now then when she got 2 hours of direct sun a day and shade the rest of the time. I’ll have to wait and see if she actually is growing faster and better. But what I still recommend is at least 1-2 hours of direct morning or afternoon sun, and as much indirect sun as she can soak up. You can adjust her to more if you do it slowly though.
Growth and Development
Keep in mind that Salvia will start off growing very slowly. Also, every time you transplant, it will take her a while to adjust and it will take time before she starts growing quickly again. I have found that the larger she grows the faster she grows until she reaches her optimum growth rate. So just be patient and if you’ve already waited a month or two and she hasn’t sped up try a little fertilizer. Miracid or Miracle Grow work pretty good. The last thing that will inhibit Salvia growth is too small a pot. When I want to grow another plant for myself I usually root the cutting and then put that cutting directly into the pot it will stay in for a very long time. I may end up with a 2 inch tall plant in a foot and a half diameter pot. This will ensure plenty of room for the roots to grow and I won’t have to transplant it. If the pot is too small the plant will become root bound or won’t grow quickly. Then, when you re-pot her, it will take it time to get back to a normal growth rate.
Lastly, when I first got my plant the leaves were yellow and thick. I prefer greener, more succulent leaves, so I started with a bit more fertilizer and gave her less light. I find the more shaded and humid it is the darker the leaves are.
Maximizing Leaf Output
Christmas tree growers do it. Shrubbery growers do it. Even YOU do it every time you cut your hedges. Its called pinching by some, but what is it and how does it work? Its very simple. At the very tip of a branch, stem, etc., there is a region called the apical meristem at the apical bud. This region is where all the cell division happens and new growth occurs. This region also produces a chemical called Indole acetic acid (IAA). This chemical inhibits all the buds at the leaf nodes (where the leaf attaches to the stem) from growing. If the apical meristem creates a lot of IAA it has a high apical dominance and it usually only has one stem and no branches. Sunflowers are like this. If it has medium apical dominance and creates lower levels of IAA it has fewer branches at the top where the concentration of IAA is high and at the bottom it has many more branches where IAA concentration is lower. Christmas trees are like this. And finally plants with low apical dominance are very bushy and branch often. So how does all this botanical crap help you? Well very simply, if you remove the apical meristem you cut off the production of IAA from that bud. It then branches from that point and depending on how much IAA the lateral buds (lower buds at each node) make, your plant may branch at each node. So every time you take a cutting off Salvia divinorum it will branch at the highest intact node.
Even if you don’t want to take a cutting you can pinch that bud off and it will branch there. So instead of having a tall straight plant with only 4-8 large leaves near the top, it becomes more bushy and creates many more leaves. Just remember though that if you start too high it will get too heavy and break off. So start when it is only 6-8 inches or smaller so the stem can support the bushy growth. This is the very thing you do when you cut your hedges. Your cutting off the apical meristems and causing it to branch and fill out. By doing this to a Salvia divinorum plant you will get a fuller leafier plant.
Salvia divinorum is a powerful, regal plant that requires a special relationship with the people who grow her. It seems so weak and fragile yet so powerful. Although evolutionarily speaking it seems Salvia has not done as well as other plants, in fact the very substance that makes her so powerful may be her key to survival. Did she in fact create Salvinorin to attract humans to care for her? I would guess so, but either way we are now one being with separate realities. She joins mine when I care for and grow her and I join hers when I partake of her flesh. To truly know what Salvia divinorum is all about one must cultivate her. There are as many lessons in growing her as there are in the visions she uses to communicate to us. Hopefully by sharing information about her more people can enjoy having this wonderful plant ally in their homes.
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