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Plant a Pretty Piece of History

| October/November 2005

  • Wood Betony Stachys officinalis Hardy to Zone 4
  • Lemon Bergamot Monarda citriodora Hardy to Zone 7
  • CHINESE SKULLCAP Scutellaria baicalensis Hardy to Zone 4 or 5

I was reminded of the changing perception of herbs that has been quietly revolutionizing our plant world when a friend, who never grows herbs, proudly displayed her latest find to brighten her midsummer border. It was none other than wood betony, an herb of antiquity.

A native of woodlands and moist fields from Scotland to the Mediterranean, wood betony was once considered a cure-all, used internally in teas to cure headaches and externally in poultices to heal wounds. Betony was “good for man’s soul or for his body,” according to an early medieval herbal.

Growing from woody rhizomes, wood betony produces distinctive rosettes of coarse, dark green, heavily veined leaves nearly heart-shaped and strongly aromatic. Erect stems bear short, densely filled spikes of small pink to reddish-purple flowers in clustered whorls, 20 to 30 flowers in a cluster. The spikes are interrupted, appearing mostly at the top of the plant, but also farther down the stem in smaller whorls, each one growing out of a pair of short, scallop-edged leaves. The merest brush releases the plant’s strong musk-mint scent. In full bloom, this is a well-visited bee plant.

Sow seeds indoors eight to 10 weeks before the last frost at 70 degrees. Seeds should germinate in 15 to 30 days. Or buy plants and space them 12 to 18 inches apart in humus-rich soil, in full sun or light shade. Where winters are severe, moist soil conditions should be avoided. Cut spent flower stalks to encourage more blossoming, which may continue to the fall. Get the most out of your plant by cutting the flower stalks before they are spent, as betony is a long-lasting cut flower.


Seeds are available from J.L.Hudson Seedsman; Star Route 2, Box 337, La Honda, CA 94020; Plants of the species with lavender flowers and the cultivar ‘Rosea’ with pink flowers are available from Well-Sweep Herb Farm, 205 Mt. Bethel Rd., Port Murray, NJ 07865; (908) 852-5390; Seeds available from Penya Seeds, 57 Wandle Ave., Bedford, OH 44146;

Try This Tasty Beauty for Teas and for Bees

I ordered seed of this Appalachian mountain native on a whim and I was not sorry. Lemon bergamot is a gorgeous herb that lives in the shadow of its red cousin, bee balm (Monarda didyma). Sometimes referred to as lemon mint, lemon bergamot grows to 24 inches and bears bergamots’ characteristic whorled blooms. What gives this plant its extraordinary beauty is the way the large 3-inch whorls are stacked on top of one another — two to four of them on each stem — and the contrast of rosy-lilac florets with chartreuse bracts, surrounded by a loose ruff of deeper rose-lilac sepals. The whole plant has a strong lemon-mint aroma when lightly brushed, and when in bloom, the flowers are covered with bees drawn to their nectar. As a member of the mint family, lemon bergamot possesses mild sedative properties. It is used for teas and potpourri, and it dries well for winter arrangements.

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