LANSING, New York — This is still the quiet time of year when we gardeners happily burrow around in books and store up strength for the big push in spring. Some of us also spend part of each day exercising to keep in shape; April and May are taxing months, and one must think ahead. I have a wonderful place to walk: a country road high above Lake Cayuga. As I chug briskly along, I enjoy the color combinations—cobalt blue lake, white snow-covered fields with swaths of yellow-ocher corn stalks poking through, burnt umber of nearby woods, dark gray of those far away. Bramble bushes are purple with a silver bloom on them, like that of ‘Concord’ grapes, and even in January the maple trees have dark red tips, promising rosy flowers later.
Back at my desk, I’m thinking about nepetas, or catmints, which are a special interest of mine. For several years, I’ve been growing as many of them as I can find seed for in seed-exchange lists. Nepeta grandiflora and N. sibirica are tall and attractive enough to grace an herb garden but don’t have enough charm or impact for a perennial border, it seems to me.
The plant that is sold in this country as N. mussinii, with N. ¥ faassenii often given as an alternate name, is almost always N. mussinii. For some reason, the two plants have become confused, although they are not hard to tell apart. N. mussinii is smaller with broader, greener-gray leaves, and it seeds itself freely. N. ¥ faassenii,, a cross between N. mussinii and N. nepetella, is more upright and billowy, has grayer, narrower leaves, and is sterile. I keep sending for plants listed as N. ¥ faassenii and getting N. mussinii. I’ve just about given up.
Nepeta ‘Six Hills Giant’ (N. gigantea) is a hybrid probably involving N. ¥ faassenii. At any rate, the two plants I’ve received of this from two different nurseries have long grayish leaves and exuberant spirits. They throw their flounces about over a circle at least 4 feet in diameter. You have to clear away all small plants in their neighborhood, or by September, when you go looking for them, you’ll find nothing but damp, shrunken bodies under their skirts. ‘Six Hills Giant’ is a nice plant for those with enough room to devote to it, but so are N. m. ‘Blue Wonder’ and ‘White Wonder’, which take up much less space.
A plant grown from seed labeled N. camphorata is prettier than any of the above, being far more silvery. Its leaves are very fine, elongated and toothed. Like the other nepetas, it flings its long branches about with abandon.
Not so N. nervosa, which makes an upright little specimen with thickish, ribbed, pointed leaves and 6- to 8-inch straight flower spikes. I must admit it sends stolons underground, but not so frantically that it can’t be controlled; it just gives you enough extras to share with your friends. N. nervosa looks very nice indeed in the front of the border as a companion to dianthus, helianthemums and thrift.
However, the very best nepeta in the garden is ‘Souvenir d’André Chaudron’, also raised from seed-exchange seed. This one is well worth a place in the border. It grows from 2 to 21/2 feet tall, has long, pointed, dark green leaves and spikes of deep violet flowers 11/2 inches long. If it is given enough space, these will stand upright, at least until a heavy rain makes them lean. It spreads quite courteously by means of stolons, but don’t panic when you read that word: you’ll have trouble keeping enough for yourself when your gardening friends see it. In the border last summer, I had a clump of ‘Souvenir’ grouped with gray-foliaged lavender and frosty-leaved, white-flowering argemone in front of Caryopteris ‘Dark Knight’ (deep lavender blue) and the pale pink clusters of Rosa ‘Ballerina’. A nearby gaura was spraying its white and pink butterflies over the whole affair. Absolutely lovely, if I do say so.
All nepetas have pungent foliage, and most of them have lavender flowers. All of them want light soil, full sun, and good drainage. They don’t seem to have any problems with diseases or insects—always an endearing quality in a plant.
Elisabeth Sheldon is a garden writer and lecturer in Lansing, New York and the author of The Flamboyant Garden (Henry Holt and Company 1993).