Thursday, May 13, 2010

Growing Salvia divinorum in Maine: Maine Winter and the Indoor Desert

In Maine, when the leaves are yellow and red, and the skies become clear, crisp blue, broken only by the golden sun, somewhere around the end of September, it is time to occasionally start bringing the Salvia plants inside for the night.

Even this spring, Maine had an unusually early string of fair weather in March when I was able to test what the adult plants might be like outside, I absolutely had to bring them in at night.

Now, in the middle of April, for the last three nights I've transferred all 50 or-so plants outside to the 70-80 degree (F) windhouse, for the daylight hours, and then back in again at night. The benefits of extra hours of full-spectrum sunlight, humidity and the soil-warming action of the sun, far out-weigh the lazy approach of just leaving them inside for another couple of weeks. Fortunately, tonight they will be able to stay out. They like it that way - they told me. :] And it is likely that there will be no more frost (I feel my fingers wanting to cross).

The very early kick-in of germination and sprouting in March this year, with frost occurring later in April, has really hurt many of Maine's crop farmers. Unlike me, they were not able to bring their babies in from the cold.

Anyway, getting back to the fall and the coming of winter, Salvia should not be in temperatures below about 39 degrees; I have seen them live through that this spring. Any night - at least in Maine - with temperatures slipping below that mark means one is running the risk of very localized pockets of frost developing. And if the plant hits the freezing mark, it's a permanent goodbye. Why risk it?, I say.

By the middle of October the plants will stay inside for the duration of the winter. This is where the fun begins...

Instead of going into some kind of dormancy or hibernation, things continue on as they did outside. Window light - even from the Northeastern window that I have to use - is adequate for another month and a half. This is one of the Salvia grower's many unusual pluses. Since all parts of the plant are relatively useful to cultivate re-production is nearly always done by rooting the cuttings from bigger plants, not by seed. And in that case, the plant doesn't need its natural light cycle in order to grow or for reproduction; it has humans for that! Terence McKenna once said that "...plants invented animals as a way of moving them around." And so it's true, especially in the case of Salvia divinorum.

Over the winter I made my way toward an unusual lifestyle of Salvia-obsession. I have two Feline American roommates, and for the first time, last year, Salvia ALSO came to live with me. And she is the most beautiful roommate I've ever had...though a challenging one in some ways.


After deciding to devote my attention to mass-producing this sacred herb, one challenge I ran into right away was the deleterious effects of over-cutting. I wanted 100 plants by the first day of Summer, to start my business with. That meant maximizing with all possible haste and efficiency, the "cloning" technique. My plant is the Blosser clone (named for it's collector, Bret Blosser). Genetically speaking, it is not related to his plant; it is that plant. In this way the plant never really dies. Interesting facts about the reproduction and cloning (a-sexual) production, as well as hundreds of fascinating sources of information about Salvia can be found at Daniel Siebert's (the discoverer of the action of Salvinorin A) amazing site: Daniel's site is THE source for the best information on Salvia.

I discovered that taxing the plants by cutting off too many bits for rooting, can put the plant into a dormant-like state. The stems get woody and it takes more effort for the plant to make new growth. In a way, I had no choice but to sacrifice the health of my first host plant in this way. But she gave generously of herself, like Salvia always does, that her offspring might become hosts themselves. And that is exactly what happened.

Until Thanksgiving time, in November, she held up well, yielding the first flush of 6 clones. They are all still alive, as is the original host--now in retirement. But even they have given much too, but not-yet, too much. They stand now in the windhouse as what I call "clone poles," having had all their large leaves and even tops harvested, in order that the small branches can get large enough to be cut-off and rooted.

Photo of a "Clonepole" After Winter


I called the indoors environment of Maine a "desert," because there is virtually no moisture in the air. And as we learned in the last post of this series, Salvia likes a damp place to live. To make up for this I became the cheerful mister-guy for 5 months, six times a day, every day. I may have been over-reacting a bit (as I discovered later, they don't need THAT much mist), but they sure LOVED it. And they grew better than I'd ever seen on the web or in any book before.

After Watering

I worked that Mister mister until the cheap-ass spring that bounces the lever back, broke. [Now I have a bottle whose cap is attached to a sprayer that is only there for decorative purposes. People at the "Sprayco" company can probably find a stronger spring to use. Although, I'll give credit where credit is due, on the bottle it says, "This spray bottle was proudly assembled by mentally and physically challenged people in Michigan." The assemblers are great, it isn't their fault the spring company delivers crappy parts. But I digress... ;)...]

By the time Christmas arrived, things were really starting to move along. I had 6 large, healthy plants about 6-8" high, maybe 10 more small cuttings in various stages of rooting, and one incredible host who was just beginning to show the REAL signs of wear.

To save the plants from experiencing too much suffering, I tried multiple ways of rooting really small pieces. I wouldn't have even tried this but I noticed that when even 1" leaves fell on the surface of the soil they wouldn't die! So, as an experiment, I would take them and simply stick their little stems right into the soil of the larger plant, and then water the large plant as I usually did. Within 3 weeks the little leaves rooted. It was a Eureka moment for sure, as I had never read of such a thing before. This got me thinking about a change in tactics for rooting.

A 1" Leaf Rooted

And it was because of my curiosity over rooting small pieces that I made my first real discovery about rooting Salvia divinorum, and the first time I ever lost or sickened cuttings.


I decided that perhaps the smaller the piece of Salvia, the easier it would root, under proper conditions. And if I could achieve these conditions, then perhaps I could root dozens at once from only a few plants; because, there are always many of these tiny growth spots (where new branches were waiting to grow out) on each plant. This tempted me to experiment again. My question was: Why use water to set a few medium-sized cuttings in for rooting, if many smaller pieces would be able to root while simply sitting in the soil that they would end up in anyway?

In February, I took two styrofoam, Egg Land's Best, egg cartons and filled each little cup with potting soil. Then I cut 24 tiny, pre-branch pieces - maybe 1/8" high stems, with 2 little 1/4" leaves on each - off the plants and stuck each one in a soil-filled egg cup. I was thrilled as several days went by and they all still looked pretty good. Then small, dead, brown patches appeared at the tips of the leaves and spread over the whole cutting; over the next week or so I lost about 1/2 of my 24.

I was desperate to have my ingenious plan work, but they just kept dying. Strangley - and I have no explanation for this - about 8 of them DID live, and even thrived. There was little difference in them as compared with their dead associates, when it came to size and method of treatment I gave. What this told me was that 1/3 of cuttings in this size range will survive. Unfortunately I also discovered that it took about 1.5 months for roots to finally show on the survivors; 3 times as long as a medium-sized cutting would have taken.

In addition, I didn't like a method that killed 2/3rds of a population just to get more itty-bitty clones. The extra effort it took and the robbing of what would have been a bunch of nice 3-4" branches in the same amount of time I tried to root them as 1/8" cuttings, was wasteful. I didn't fully understand this at the time, but the experience in February was the first of my most important lessons in cloning multiple specimens of Salvia divinorum. To this day, those 8 plants are still a bit sickly and only 1" high. It has been months now that I've waited for them to shoot for the sky, with the first real signs of new growth occurring just in the last week, probably due to the benefits of the windhouse environment.


Simultaneously with the first dying off of my egg carton cuttings, I began another more successful series of experiments.

I took 5 very small (1" stemmed) cuttings that had already rooted and put them into little, glass spice jars - 1 in each - and then dropped in a pinch of soil and gently filled each one with those tiny styrofoam balls that break off of packing material. I wanted to see how well they would do so that I might be able to sell them this way in the future.

Jars Being Prepared

The jar containing the first plant was sealed with the jar-cap and then shrink wrapped in plastic. For kicks I printed off a label like it would have when shipped. I wanted to make sure the plant could live for three or for days without fresh water or air on its journey to whatever hypothetical destination it might be traveling. I ended up leaving it for 1.5 weeks without opening the jar, and then crackled off the shrink-wrap and pulled the cap off. The plant was fine!

It then struck me that it would be in a cardboard box and be without light. I had not controlled for this, so I ran the experiment again, this time with a second plant sealed in a box. On the second time around I also left out the pinch of soil--which only made them a little bit healthier, as I had suspected.

Since I wouldn't want to lose any precious rooted cutting for nothing, I quickly unsealed the box, for each day, after the third day. I did this in a dark room and examined it with a flashlight. Again, after 1.5 weeks both little plants (one, given light and one, having light suspended) were fine.

The other 3 jarred plants I simply let grow in their jars without the caps on, until they reached about 3". When they had plenty of roots, all jars were emptied and their occupants were transplanted into 8" wide pots. Today they are developing beautifully and are ready to make (what I call) the 3 month growth spurt. That is when 3" plants rise to 12" plants. Now, Daniel Siebert has said that due to environmental situations, cloned plants may develop very different visual aspects than what their hosts display. And such is the situation with these five. They are heavily marked with purple. I have no idea at what point they changed. Was it soil? Was it the jar growth? I have no idea, but they seem to be like a new "variety." Though, genetically, I know that isn't possible. Perhaps this mystery will be solved as I continue to work with this enigmatic plant.

My lesson with the spice jars showed me that small Salvia clones can go a long time without light or fresh air and water, plenty of time to ship them successfully; and as long as they are not subject to the freezing compartment of a jet. It is very likely that I will begin to do just this kind of sales and shipping at some point this summer. But until the 3rd week of June, all cuttings must be kept for production purposes.

Another lesson I was just starting to learn, was about Salvia's sensitivity to different soils and to soil itself, as compared to inert substraits, like styrofoam. As I've come to realize, Salvia isn't really a plant that needs the chemisty of soil as much as it simply needs the soil to simply hold itself up and provide a place for roots to grow and gather water. I suspect hydroponically grown Salvia would be even healthier than soil grown Salvia. And I may try this at some point. The thing that turns me off about hydroponics is all the tubes, plant food and special tubs, etc. I'm sure there is a "homemade" way to hydroponically grow things, but I've never really investigated it. If anyone has a lead on this, please post a comment. Thanks!

The plants are really puffing up now as the hours of daylight are increasing. And this brings me to my last experience with winter growing...


Around Christmas was the depth of the darkness of winter outside. I was lucky to get 8 hours of indirect sunlight through that window of mine. And from about the beginning of December, I began supplimenting the light with 4 hours of flourescent light (two Energysaver bulbs at 35 watts each). As I have implied above, Salvia is not real picky about the intensity of the light. But to keep them in a vegetive state (growing), rather than a reproductive one (slowing their growth and going to flower, which according to Sea Mac can take up to three months), the plants really need a 12 hour duration of light every 24 hours. And it doesn't matter when they get their extra 4 hour suppliment. Sometimes I'd forget to switch on the lights at sundown, and I'd pop them on at 8:00 pm and off again at 12 am. Of course, forgetting to turn off the lights - though a waste of electricity - only gave them more growth.

Winter Late Afternoon

Winter Supplemental Light


As a summary of my winter adventures with the Salvia roommates, let me say the following...

Salvia is both easy to grow AND has a sensitive side too. The things I thought would be a problem - namely, moisture and drainage - were not an issue. But the rooting of multiple clones can be as well as soil used at the wrong time, and soil-types.

I learned that tiny clones take what seems like forever to grow (1.5-3 months or more). So, starting with a cutting that is at least 3" is the most efficient means of cloning.

It is important to add that this spring I was finally able to try rooting large 12" (or more) cuttings (please see earlier posts). And what I discovered with that is they take a good solid month or more to root. However, these large pieces develop more roots, bigger roots, and already will posses the height they need to be considered adult plants.

So, I must ammend one of my earlier statements (please see my first post). It is not the smallness of the cutting that produces quicker root growth. Medium (3") cuttings are the ones that always root before small or large ones.

And to sum up my current understanding of cloning, here is a table I hope might be useful if you become a Maine Salvia divinorum grower and have to work on the plants over the winter...