Hot Lips in the Garden


When people hear “Hot Lips” they undoubtedly think about different things. If you are in my generation, you might think of Major Margaret J. “Hot Lips” Houlihan, the fictional nurse in the television show, MASH, which has been variously described as a black comedy, medical drama, and satire about the Korean War. Loretta Swift played “Hot Lips Houlihan” during the long-running television series.

Hot Lips Music Sheet

Jazz aficionados might think about a popular song, “Hot Lips” a Blues Foxtrot, written by Henry Busse, Henry Lange, and Lous Davis, and first published in 1922. Others more into current music and internet videos might think about the song “Hot Lips” by the Swedish group, Pacific! If you happen to be from Portland, Oregon, I understand that to you “Hot Lips” might even mean a family-run pizza business based on sustainability principles.

Many people likely would agree with the definitions for “Hot Lips” in the Urban Dictionary: “A complimentary term used to finalize emails or text messages to a loved one. A term used when calling upon a loved one or close friend. A term used when describing an attractive female friend to ones male friends.”

Indeed, I suspect that even Dr. Phil and Oprah Winfrey would recommend calling your spouse “Hot Lips” once and a while to playfully spice things up and maintain marital harmony. However, if you are a horticulturist or avid gardener, “Hot Lips” means one thing: Salvia microphylla !

Hot Lips Close Up2

To gardeners, “Hot Lips” is a relatively new variety of sage that was released by the Strybing Arboretum in 2002, which is now known as the San Francisco Botanical Garden at Strybing Arboretum. Although I’ve not seen a formal accounting, my understanding is that the flowers were discovered by the writer and garden designer, Richard Turner, of the Strybing Arboretum, when he noticed the flowers being kept by a friend’s housekeeper, Alta Gracia, in Mexico. The flowers were propagated and introduced by the Strybing Arboretum and you can usually locate at least one or two local nurseries on the Palouse that offer them for sale by mid-summer.

Hot Lips Flowers

Salvia is one of three genera of plants commonly called “sage” in the mint family, Lamiaceae. People in central Washington might refer to “sage” when they really mean sagebrush, but the genus for sagebrush, Artimesia, is unrelated. Many salvia or sage species have herbal and medicinal uses.

Hot Lips is aptly named. It’s difficult to find a more gaudy and audacious floral display than Hot Lips in full bloom. The crisp white and bright red bi-color contrast of the flower petals snap and pop like fireworks when in full display. You almost expect to see an American flag waving next to Hot Lips. To complete the patriotic picture, Hot Lips is nicely highlighted with a backdrop or companion of light to dark blue flowers. Hot Lips also looks nice as a patio specimen in a blue pot and it certainly works well in a bright cottage-style garden. Wherever you put it, expect it to draw attention.

Hot Lips 2

Hot Lips is generally considered a zone 7-11 perennial, so it is used as an annual on the Palouse. It grows about 2 - 2.5 feet tall and might spread about 2 -3 feet. It does well with full sun and low water, although I’ve often found that a patio specimen in a container with potting soil that dries out rapidly benefits from a little bit of afternoon shade in the intense heat of mid summer. The plant is deer resistant, but will be a butterfly magnet.

I wonder if deer don’t like Hot Lips because of the aromatic leaves. While the plant is aromatic, it is not necessarily pleasant. I find it a bit sharp and pungent, but there is little scent unless you are very close and actually rub the leaves.

White Red LipsRed Flowered Red Lips

Hot Lips has an interesting habit of changing flower color on the same plant under varying environmental conditions. In my experience, with less light and heat, some flowers will become almost completely white, while other flowers are almost entirely red. But don’t panic. With enough sun and warmth, the bi-color Hot Lips will return.

So next summer, try some Hot Lips in your garden and you won’t be disappointed!

R.D. Sayler

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