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; www.WellSweep.com. Seeds available from Penya Seeds, 57 Wandle Ave., Bedford, OH 44146; www.PenyaSeeds.com.
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.
Growing information is hard to come by. Hortus Third lists it as an annual or biennial. It is also described elsewhere as a tender perennial. Where I live (Zone 4), it is an annual. In regions warmer than Zone 6, it self-sows. Sow seeds indoors eight to 12 weeks before the last frost and just cover them with soil. They germinate in five days at 70 degrees. In the garden, lemon bergamot is a stunning contrast among silver-gray artemisias. I like to plant lemon bergamot in a container by the kitchen door where I can stop to admire and sniff it, then pick a few leaves for the teapot.
Dark-purple, woolly calyces and dark-violet flowers make ‘Gros Bleu’ lavender spectacular.
Seed sources: Wildseed Farms, 425 Wildflower Hills, P.O. Box 3000, Fredericksburg, TX 78624-3000; (800) 848-0078; www.WildSeedFarms.com; Prairie Moon Nursery, 31837 Bur Oak Lane, Winona, MN 55987; (866) 417-8156; www.PrairieMoon.com; Penya Seeds, 57 Wandle Ave., Bedford, OH 44146; www.PenyaSeeds.com.
A New Version of an Ancient Chinese Healer
Skullcap’s common name is based on the flower calyx’s hump that forms a kind of hood. This was one of the wild flowers we always noticed near the damp path to our swimming pond in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Although diminutive, it stood out from others because of its pretty violet spikes of bloom, but I would never have thought of planting it in a garden. Skullcap, as far as I knew, was a wild flower to be enjoyed in the wild. Now a new skullcap has appeared on the gardening scene, this one a showy perennial called ‘Oriental Blue’. Developed in England, this cultivar produces dainty but showy spikes of bright purple, much larger and more colorful than our little wildflower, and larger and showier than the original Asian species. It is a compact summer-blooming perennial for the front of the border that grows to about 12 inches by 24 inches and needs well-drained soil and sun to be happy.
This improved skullcap represents a new trend in gardening, where even the most prosaic medicinal is a subject for breeding as a garden ornamental. S. baicalensis has a long history of use in Chinese medicine. Known as huang qin, its root is used in preparations to stop fevers and bleeding and to induce sleep.
Seedlings resent transplanting, so sow seeds in peat pots or directly in cells (three to four seeds per cell), lightly covering seeds with soil. Germination takes 14 to 21 days. If you start with plants, make sure they are sited where drainage is assured, as Chinese skullcap does not like wet feet.
Plants are available from Richters, 357 Hwy. 47, Goodwood, Ontario, Canada L0C 1A0; (800) 668-4372; www.richters.com. Seeds available from Penya Seeds, 57 Wandle Ave., Bedford, OH 44146; www.PenyaSeeds.com; or (spring shipments only) from Spring Hill Nurseries, P.O. Box 330; Harrison, OH 45030; (513) 354-1509; www.SpringHillNursery.com.