Herb to Know: Showy Calamint

| August/September 2005

Genus: Calamintha grandiflora

• Hardy to Zone 4 or 5

The midsummer-blooming showy calamint is native to southern Europe and North Africa. It bears masses of small, bright pink tubular flowers in whorls on square stems that rise from a mat of slightly fuzzy, serrated leaves, about the same size as catnip foliage. The genus name comes from the Greek meaning beautiful (kale) and mint (menthe), a perfect name for this little-known and desirable member of the mint family. All parts are pleasantly aromatic without a hint of sharpness or cloying sweetness. Its fruity scent is somewhat like pineapple combined with catnip, thyme and pennyroyal rolled into one. The cultivar ‘Variegata’ has white-speckled foliage.

An elderly gardener who specialized in collecting choice, unknown plants introduced me to showy calamint but she didn’t give me a hint about its growing needs. I mistakenly treated it as a mint and gave it damp ground in partial shade, which encouraged its early demise. Partial shade works if the soil is light and well drained. Although the variegated version does best in some shade, the green-leaved species loves sun.

Unlike true mints, this close relative thrives in dry conditions where it makes a tidy plant from 14 to 24 inches tall for borders, containers, along paths or anywhere you will benefit from its aroma. Where winters are harsh, showy calamint may seem to disappear, but when the sun warms, it grows up again from its roots. Sow seeds in the spring, or propagate by division or stem cuttings in early summer.

Besides being a pleasure for the eye, showy calamint makes a soothing tea. Pour 2 cups of boiling water over 1 to 2 teaspoons dried leaves and steep only a few minutes. Add sugar or honey to taste, and serve with lemon.

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