Three Great Must-haves for This Year’s Garden

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CAT THYME
Teucrium marum
Hardy to Zone 9

More commonly seen in rock gardens than in herb
gardens, cat thyme (Teucrium marum), might look like plain old,
upright silver thyme at first glance, but your cat might think this
fuzzy herb is a garden of earthly delight. Cat thyme belongs to the
mint family (Labiatae), as does thyme. Cat thyme looks like a
hairy, upright silver thyme, but actually it is in the germander
genus, which consists of more than 300 species.

Native to the Balearic Islands of the western Mediterranean area
and one island off the northwest coast of what is now Serbia, cat
thyme has naturalized throughout Spain and southern Europe, where
it is known under many names: marum, herba mari veri, herb mastich,
and herbe aux chats. This last common name and its English
equivalent, cat thyme, refers to its ability to attract cats, much
like catnip (Nepeta cataria).

Cat thyme achieves its cat appeal through different chemical
compounds than those in catnip. The crushed leaves emit a strong
fragrance suggestive of mint and camphor. My own cat, Ember,
disdains catnip but will aggressively seek out cat thyme. He
typically chews the tips of the branches, but some cats will roll
on the plant and can damage it severely because the plant is so
twiggy and brittle. I frequently advise customers with cats to
protect the plant with chicken wire or to place it in a hanging
basket out of paw’s reach.

THE PLANT

Cat thyme is an evergreen perennial shrub with slender stems
that are covered with small, oval leaves about 3/8 inch long. A
soft, white fuzz covers the upper side of the leaf; the underside
has a duller, gray-green pubescence, a combination that gives the
impression of the plant being enveloped in a fine silvery mist. The
lovely, deep carmine-pink flowers are densely packed on short 3- to
5-inch flower spikes. Blooming from July through September, the
flowers open characteristically on one side of the plant only. (I
have never had a plant produce seed. Propagation is from
cuttings.)

This small mounding shrub typically grows from 8 to 18 inches
tall, depending on the climate, and is wider than it is tall. In
all but the mildest climates, cat thyme needs protection from
winter cold; put it in a protected spot and mulch it heavily. At
temperatures below about 20 degrees, cat thyme is susceptible to
winter kill.

This is definitely a drought-tolerant plant that doesn’t like
high humidity. Good drainage is essential as well as a full sun
exposure. While it prefers a chalky, lime soil, it does well in my
acidic soil with an amendment of gritty sand for better
drainage.

Historically, cat thyme was used as a gallbladder tonic or
stomach aid. Also, crushing its aromatic leaves can prompt
sneezing, so it was added to herbal snuffs and other remedies for
the “disorders of the mind.” The leaves taste bitter, followed by a
sensation of heat.

Cat thyme plants are available from Sunnyboy Gardens, 3314
Earlysville Rd., Earlysville, VA 22936; (888) 431-0006;
www.SunnyboyGardens.com.

One of today’s most popular culinary herbs,
Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) is highly aromatic because it is so
rich in volatile oils. Some of these oils are so predominant that
they form basil chemotypes, which become the name of cultivars: for
example, ‘Anise’ basil, with methyl chavicol dominating its
fragrance, ‘Cinnamon’ basil with methyl cinnamate, ‘Clove’ basil
with eugenol and ‘Lemon’ basil with citral.

In a parade of basils, I enjoy a relative newcomer: lime basil
(O. americanum). There is some confusion among experts as to
whether this is a true species or a natural hybrid of O. basilicum,
and it is often mislabeled in the commercial trade, appearing under
various cultivar names. Other basil types generally grouped under
the O. americanum species include ‘Lemon’, ‘Spicy’ and the
camphorous ‘Hoary’ basils. Lime basil was developed by isolating
basils that have a distinct lime — not lemon — fragrance. It breeds
true from seed, which is not typical of other hybrids.

Because of its citral component, lime basil does well in fish
sauces and marinades, as a garnish for iced tea and in
vinegars.

THE PLANT

An annual easily grown from seed, lime basil grows 12 to 24
inches tall with a compact growth habit. It is quite similar to
‘Lemon’ basil in appearance but with smaller and slightly darker
green leaves and white flowers.

Requiring full sun, this plant thrives in heat, provided it gets
adequate water. It will be set back if grown or transplanted
outside too early in the growing season; night temperatures should
be above 50 degrees before it is planted outside.

Although slower growing in comparison to the more vigorous sweet
basil cultivars, I get two or three harvests during the growing
season. Don’t start harvesting before the plant has at least three
pair of leaves. Prune just above the oldest pair of leaves, which
will generate branching from the leaf axils. Also, encourage more
leaf production by avoiding letting the plant flower.

Lime basil seeds are available from Nichols Garden Nursery, 1190
Old Salem Rd., NE, Albany, OR 97321; (800) 422-3985;
www.NicholsGardenNursery.com and Thompson and Morgan Seeds, P.O.
Box 1308, Jackson, NJ 08524; (800) 274-7333;
www.Thompson-M­organ.com.

LAVENDER ‘GROS BLEU’
Lavandula ¥intermedia ‘Gros Bleu’
Hardy to Zone 5

This group of lavender hybrids originally was
grown in France in the late 1940s, where it was commonly called
Tête Carrée, which means square head. It was eventually named ‘Gros
Bleu’ — French for “big blue” — because it is a tall grower with
large, deep-blue flowers on short spikes. A newer,
different-looking version of this cultivar has been introduced to
the Pacific Northwest via a grower in Sault, France. It is one of
the darkest purple-flowered cultivars being grown and has long,
branched flower stems.

The plant has a good fragrance and its flowers are great for
fresh bouquets, lavender wands, potpourri and dried bouquets.
Because of its darker flower color, this new lavandin may rival
‘Fat Spike Grosso’ in commercial use if it is found to have as high
a quality of essential oil.

Dark-purple, woolly calyces and dark-violet flowers make
‘Gros Bleu’ lavender spectacular.

THE PLANT

Lavandula ¥’Gros Bleu’ is a robust and erect grower that
develops into a dense mound similar to but slightly larger than
‘Fat Spike Grosso.’ It has greenish gray foliage with flower stems
20 to 24 inches long with lateral branching. What is spectacular
about this plant is the very dark-purple, woolly calyces
(suggestive of ‘Hidcote’ lavender) accompanied by dark-violet
corollas or flowers. These appear on slender, tapered flower spikes
that are 4 inches or longer. Flowering begins around mid- to late
July to August. To date, I haven’t seen any significant rebloom as
‘Fat Spike Grosso’ sometimes has.

I’ve grown this cultivar for three years now and it has proven
as hardy as any of my other lavandins.

Full sun and good drainage is required for optimal growth and
flower production.

As with any lavandin, this cultivar is sterile and propagation
is by vegetative means only.


Andrew Van Hevelingen is a professional herb grower and frequent
contributor to The Herb Companion. He enjoys writing, photography
and gardening at his Newberg, Oregon, home.

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