Get Growing: The marvelous mint family

Get Growing: The marvelous mint family

Get Growing: The marvelous mint family

What would we do without mints? Distributed worldwide, the vast Lamiaceae family, previously Labiatae, brings us numerous culinary and medicinal plants, including mint, rosemary, hyssop, basil and sage. We have them to thank for mint juleps, Earl Gray tea, Italian seasoning mix, catnip and smudge sticks.

In fact, an herbal apothecary or gift shop can be well stocked with essential oils and products from the mint family alone. As a group, their nectar-rich flowers are some of the most popular with pollinators, making them essential components to our food web and a great start when shopping for your pollinator-friendly garden.

The flowers are typically made of two “lips” from which the original genus name was derived.  The lower lip serves as a landing pad for insect pollinators. The aromatic oils are concentrated in the leaves and stem hairs, requiring brushing to release their fragrance. The range of scents is quite impressive, from high-pitched mint and bass-note basil, twangy lemon balm, sharpish rosemary to the ineffable umami of sages like Palo Santo. Various agastaches — hyssops — can take your nose for a spin from mint to licorice to root beer.

If you roll the stems between your fingers, you’ll find the process a bit clumsy -- mint family members are distinguished by square stems. The leaves are usually arranged opposite each other, and the flowers can be whorled along the stem, like monarda species, including bee balm, and shrubby leonotis — lion’s tail, or pushed up into spikes, like salvia — sage — and agastache species. Most of the mints prefer their soil on the drier side, but monardas prefer a little extra water and can take some afternoon shade, as do most annual coleus.

Gardeners and pollinators appreciate how long blooming so many of this family are. Agastaches are superpowered in this regard, especially the blue-toned ones like “Blue Boa” and “Blue Fortune,” which come back for me more reliably than the lovely sunset colors. Catmints and catnips (Nepeta spp.) are likewise hearty bloomers in blue or white, respectively. Salvias, like “Hot Lips,” a hummingbird chart-topper, or “Amistad” can keep going nearly all season with a cut back and some compost after the first flush of bloom. A recent color breakthrough for Salvia “Hot Lips,” which is cherry red and white, is the new “Amethyst Lips” in vibrant violet. We’ll see how the hummers vote.

Some mints should be planted with caution because of their ability to spread underground. The mints we use for cooking, mentha species, fall into this category, and so nurseries often recommend giving mint its own pot to colonize rather than letting it have its way with your garden beds. Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, was the first culinary herb I planted in my garden 11 years ago. Each year it surprises me several times a season by popping up somewhere new. Like the Terminator, it’s never really gone. Monardas, beloved by butterflies and tea-makers alike, are known to seed themselves around, but seedlings can be easily removed.

On the flip side, a mint plant that refuses to move is the lupine lookalike Baptisia australis. My Baptisia “Carolina Moonlight” is going at full tilt right now, showing off pale yellow spikes in front of a purple-leafed elderberry. The thing is, it’s a bit larger than needed, thank you, and being deciduous, it does nothing for the winter scene. But I’m not moving that baby without a forklift. Baptisia plants form a chunky taproot that can hold water a long time to help it through stints on its native prairie. As a result, the root ball sounds — and feels — like an anvil when your shovel hits it. When I tried to give my friend a division, I thought I was going to need some C-4. I managed a prosciutto-thin sliver, but it thrives nonetheless at my friend’s house. Rosemary, available in diminutive trailing varieties all the way up to shrubs 5 feet tall and wide, is a nice evergreen choice for a sunny dry location — sometimes it even blooms twice. Look for varieties that are hardy to zone 8 or below. If you’re shopping for rosemary, don’t be put off by the new tags, however. Botanists now classify rosemary in the sage genus and are calling it Salvia rosmarinus. But so far, it’s still a mint.



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