Cheyenne Garden Gossip

Gardening on the high plains of southeastern Wyoming


The Mint Family

Photos courtesy of Jane and Robert Dorn. Hover over image for name of plant.

Skullcap, Scutellaria brittonii, 8 inches tall, native perennial found in rocky and gravelly places.

Coyote mint or mountain beebalm, Monardella odoratissima, 12 inches tall, prefers moist places in full sun.

Horsemint or purple beebalm, Monarda fistulosa, and cultivars, 2 feet tall, easily found in area nurseries. Transplants easily.

Giant (or anise) Hyssop, Agastache foeniculum (also called hummingbird mint),  3 feet tall, blooms July through September. Found for sale at nurseries.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Feb. 19, 2017

Introducing the mint family: from here, there and everywhere

By Barb Gorges

I was thinking a good winter pastime would be to research the mint family, Lamiaceae of which there are 7,500 species. I found tales of the good, the bad and the ugly.

Some mints were invited over to the New World because they were thought to be good garden plants, capable of providing medicinal uses, if not culinary flavor.

But some of them escaped the picket fences, becoming weeds that hang out on the dusty edges of civilization. Some poisoned livestock. Others just didn’t fit in the preferred landscape and have been periodically eradicated, especially the ones that insist on infiltrating the monoculture of lawn.

New World natives, while never originally confined to the cultivated garden, were valued for their medicinal know-how, but over time some recipes have been lost. They have been admired for their beauty and ability to thrive, each in its favorite wild place, providing sustenance to the local wildlife population. Only recently have we invited them into our cities and towns. But often we expect them to be made over into a showier version of themselves.

No matter where mints are from, they almost always share square stems and opposite leaves and they smell nice when you brush against them or crush their leaves.

Well-established garden mints

Immigrating people often take along their favorite plants from home. A surprising number of our favorite cooking herbs we grow in Cheyenne are mints that have travelled:

–Basil, Ocimum basilicum, traces its roots to India but is important to many cultures from Mexico to southeast Asia;

–Spearmint, Mentha spicata, Europe and Asia;

–Peppermint, Mentha x peperita, Europe and Middle East;

–Oregano, Origanum vulgare, Eurasia;

–Sweet marjoram, Origanum majorana, Middle East;

–Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis, Mediterranean;

–Garden sage, Salvia officinalis, Mediterranean;

–Common thyme, Thymus vulgaris, Europe;

–Lavender, Lavandula angustifolia, Mediterranean;

–Lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, Europe, Iran, Central Asia.

Garden mint turned weed

Horehound, Marrubium vulgare, is considered a medicinal herb, but has escaped cultivation. Originally from Europe, North Africa and Asia, it is now listed in the handbook, “Weeds of the West,” because it has invaded our native grasslands, including here in southeast Wyoming. Wherever there is a disturbance in the natural landscape, look for it. It’s considered a weed because it is unpalatable to livestock.

Robert Dorn, in his book, “Vascular Plants of Wyoming,” lists other weedy mints in our county:

–Creeping Charlie, Glechoma hederacea, Eurasia, common in lawns, attracts bees, has been used in beer and cheese making, but is toxic to cattle and horses;

–Dead nettle, Laminum amplexicaule, Eurasia and North Africa, problem in croplands and newly seeded lawns though one variety is considered good landscape ground cover;

–Motherwort, Leonurus cardiaca, Eurasia, an herbal remedy, introduced for bees, now invasive;

–Lanceleaf sage, Salvia reflexa, Eurasian ornamental, listed in “Weeds of the West” because it is poisonous to livestock when chopped into or mixed with other feed.

Exotic and native mints excel

But here’s a good mint that has become a naturalized in Laramie County and elsewhere in North America: catnip, Nepeta cataria. It is native to Eurasia and Africa. A hybrid, Nepeta x fassennii, known as garden catmint “Walker’s Low,” became the perennial plant of the year in 2007.

For every difficult mint, there are more mints that contribute positively to society. Here at the north end of the Front Range, and elsewhere in the drylands of the west, we are looking for plants for our gardens that don’t need much water. Some of those are natives and others from similar landscapes on the other side of the world.

Take Russian sage, Perovskia atriplicifolia, straight from the steppes of central Asia. It’s become extremely popular around here, plant it and forget it, but I don’t think anyone has taken advantage of its Old World reputation as a medicinal, or put the flowers in salad or crushed them for dye.

Water-frugal homeowners are replacing lawn with various creeping thymes, Thymus spp., and all of them hail from Europe, North Africa or Asia.

Horticulturists are always working on improvements and a catalogue like High Country Gardens shows examples. You’ll notice cultivars (cultivated varieties) with cute names. The improvements can be better cold tolerance, better drought tolerance, longer blooming and or bigger, brighter blooms. Some species are native to Turkey, like a type of lamb’s ear, Stachys lavandulifolius, or another from Arizona, another lamb’s ear, Stachys coccineus.

Wyoming natives

What I am more interested in meeting these days are the Wyoming natives, the plants that know how to get along with the native wildlife, including birds, bats, bees, butterflies, and other insects.

Looking again at Robert Dorn’s book, among the mints found in southeast Wyoming I saw:

–Dragonhead, Dracocephalum parviflorum;

–Drummond’s false pennyroyal, Hedeoma drummondii (used as a minty flavoring in Mexico);

–False dragonhead, Physostegia parviflora (related to obedient plant);

–Selfheal, Prunella vulgaris (a common lawn “weed” and Holarctic native—native to northern areas around the globe);

— Canada germander, Teucrium canadense.

Cultivated natives

These plants don’t show up in Dorn’s book he coauthored with his wife, Jane: “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area.” It could mean they aren’t showy enough or perhaps too difficult to grow. *

However, Dorn and Dorn mention these other Rocky Mountain mint cousins for our gardens:

–Giant (or anise) hyssop, Agastache foeniculum, also called hummingbird mint;

–Horsemint or purple beebalm, Monarda fistulosa;

–Coyote mint or mountain beebalm, Monardella odoratissima;

–Skullcap, Scutellaria brittonii.

Problem family members

Some gardeners have banned all mints from their gardens because they have heard they spread uncontrollably. That is true in my experience with the mentha species.

My chocolate mint, Mentha × piperita ‘Chocolate Mint,’ was well-behaved for 10-15 years until the summer I pruned back the big rosebush nearby and gave it more sun. It went ballistic. By fall I was ripping it out with my bare hands. Standard advice has been to keep crazy mints in pots so they can’t spread.

My lemon balm goes to seed before I notice and seedlings pop up the next year, but it never complains when I dig it up to share and make room for other plants.

Live and let live

The old-time culinary mints share my same raised bed and keep each other in check. Even the Russian sage hasn’t gotten out of hand as it would in a more open spot.

Maybe it’s time to try some of those new native cultivars and spice things up—and see what the bees think.

Note:

To see photos of these plants, search https://plants.usda.gov or Wikipedia, using the scientific names.

*To see Jane Dorn’s list of 25 native plants recommended for Cheyenne gardeners, and to purchase the digital version of “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area,” visit https://cheyenneaudubon.wordpress.com/habitat-hero/.


Garden for bees

2016-4gaillardia - bumble bee - Barb Gorges

There are 4,000 species of bees native to North America and 46 of them are bumble bees. This bumble bee is collecting pollen from a gaillardia or blanketflower. Photo by Barb Gorges.

A version, “Bee aware: How to attract bees to your garden, keep them happy once they get there,” was published April 10, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle.

By Barb Gorges

Bees are wildlife, though we tend to not to think of them in the same category as mice, raccoons and deer. They are however, much more beneficial for our gardens and crops.

We depend on honey bees and native bees to pollinate the flowers of crops to produce up to a third of the value of foods in our grocery carts including almonds, avocado, watermelon, squash, apples–most fruits and many vegetables.

Even crops that are considered self-pollinating, like soybeans, will increase production if pollinated by bees, said Catherine Wissner, University of Wyoming Extension horticulturist for Laramie County.

2016-4coneflower - honey bee worker - Barb Gorges

A honey bee worker collects pollen from purple coneflower. Honey bees are slimmer than native bumble bees. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Both the honey bee, from Europe, and our native bees are declining in numbers for several reasons, especially habitat loss. Like other wildlife, native bees lose out every time their diverse native habitat is converted to a weed-less, flower-less lawn, or paved over, or sprayed with pesticides. So what can we do to help them help us?

Wissner believes that if everyone offered blooming plants on their property, native bees could make a comeback, especially if native plants are used. They’d also improve our vegetable garden yields at the same time.

Native bees are more efficient pollinators because they will fly when it is cooler or cloudy. Honey bees want perfect weather.

Native bees are solitary and almost always friendly according to Wissner. Unlike honey bees, they don’t have big colonies to defend. Bumble bees especially are slow and inoffensive. But it doesn’t hurt to have an antihistamine like Benadryl in your gardening first aid kit, or epinephrine if you already know you are allergic to stinging insects.

Getting bees to your garden

Helping bees (and butterflies and other pollinating insects) can be done by planting flowers–natives especially. For years I thought them merely pretty faces to brighten my mood and the view, but now I see them as essential to the ecosystem.

In many ways, what I want in a flower garden is what the bees want as well: flowers that will bloom as early as possible and others that bloom right until first frost.

2016-4Milkweed - most likely female Bombus griseocolis - Barb Gorges

This bumble bee, most likely a Bombus griseocolis, is checking out milkweed. Notice the yellow pollen baskets on its hind legs. Photo by Barb Gorges.

I also want as many different kinds of flowers as I can get to grow in my yard and bees appreciate the variety. I focus on perennials because they are less expensive and less time-consuming than having to start from seed or buy annuals each year. Perennials just get bigger and bigger or spread seedlings each year, offering more and more flowers.

I love the simple, old-fashioned garden plants and the native wildflowers. Turns out bees like simple flowers too. The latest, greatest double or triple-petalled kind are too difficult for bees to navigate through. Bees need to collect pollen and nectar to eat or feed their young, inadvertently pollinating flowers as they move about.

As a lazy gardener, I grow plants close together to shade out the weeds and I don’t prune back the dead stuff until late spring. The old stems help hold leaf mulch in place and interrupt the wind enough to drop a protective blanket of snow for parts of the winter.

This strategy works well as Wissner said there are native bees, and other beneficial insects, that nest in the overwintering stems.

Find a place to plant with an eye for shelter, water and safety for bees

Reevaluate your current garden with an eye for enticing bees. Instead of another flat of exotic annuals this spring, could you plant native perennials?

Can you remove that half-dead juniper and replace it with a flowering shrub like red-twig dogwood?

2016-4potentilla - female Bombus bifarius - Barb Gorges

A bumble bee, a female Bombus bifarius, works over a potentilla flower. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Could you expand or add a new garden bed? Is it close to your outdoor water faucet? Is it where you can enjoy looking at it? Will it be out of the way of unofficial paths and yard activities? Is it a sunny spot? Many of the most popular plants for pollinators prefer sun.

Protecting bees from insecticides at all times is absolutely necessary—even those labelled “organic” can negatively affect bees or kill them.

Certain native bees like nesting in tubular spaces. You can drill holes ranging from ¼ to 3/4-inch diameter close together in a block of wood.

Bees need water. If you use a bird bath or dish, be sure to refresh it every few days to keep mosquitoes from breeding. Wissner uses a soaker hose on a timer and has seen the bees line up along its length, drinking.

Decide what to plant

Wissner has a rule of thumb when she visits a nursery—look for the plants buzzing with bees already.

Visiting nurseries is the easiest way to find perennials and there is a plethora of them along the Front Range from here south. However, you may have a hard time finding native plants recommended as nurseries are still learning about this gardening for pollinators movement.

The Audubon Rockies website, http://rockies.audubon.org, has a Habitat Hero program section. There you can find a list of resources and local sources for plants. The closer to home the source of the plant, the better—the better chance the plant will thrive in your garden.

Growing from seed is a possibility, but transplanting from the wild should be avoided unless you have the permission of the landowner and the site is about to be bulldozed anyway.

Be sure your selections are rated for our Zone 5 or colder, like Zones 3 and 4. Get at least three of a kind to plant together to make them more noticeable to passing bees.

Look at your overall plan to see if you have a variety of bloom times, flower colors and shapes, plant heights and leaf textures. Different kinds of flowers provide the bees different kinds of nutrients in their pollen.

A pollinator garden doesn’t need to be installed all at once. Half the fun is keeping a lookout for additions—who doesn’t enjoy an excuse to visit a flower-filled nursery?

About Bees:

Identification

The Xerces Society, www.xerces.org/pollinators-mountain-region/

Bug Guide, Iowa State University, www.bugguide.net

Bumble Bees of Western United States, search for the title at www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers

Favorite flowering shrubs

American Plum, Prunus americana

Golden Currant, Ribes aureum

Chokecherry, Prunus virginiana

Redosier Dogwood, Cornus sericea

Serviceberry, Amelanchier alnifolia

Woods Rose, Rosa woodsii

Rabbitbrush, Ericameria nauseosa

Favorite perennial flowers

Lewis flax, Linum lewisii

Beardtongue species, Penstemon spp.

Prairie Coneflower, Ratibida columnifera

Wild Beebalm, Monarda fistulosa

Common Yarrow, Achillea millefolium

Blanketflower, Gaillardia aristata

Dotted Gayfeather, Liatris punctata

Purple Coneflower, Echinacea angustifolia

Aster (fall-blooming), Symphyotrichum spp.

2016-4squash-honey bee worker - Barb Gorges

A honey bee worker climbs out of a female squash flower. Pollen grains still stick to it and will hopefully be transferred to another female squash flower, as they were to this blossom. Photo by Barb Gorges.


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Wildscaping: bringing nature home

Allium

Allium flowers attract a bee. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published May 3, 2015, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Bringing nature home with wildscaping.”

By Barb Gorges

The idea of wildscaping, landscaping your yard for the benefit of wildlife, has been around for a long time.

But there is a new spin on it. Here, the emphasis is on using native plants to provide shelter and food for wildlife.

Why native?

Let’s say you plant a shrub that is native to another continent–an alien. It may produce berries our birds will eat, but it did not evolve with our local insects, entomologist Douglas Tallamy explains in his book, “Bringing Nature Home, How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants.”

Our native herbivorous insects usually find the alien leaves to be inedible. And that is exactly why aliens are so popular with gardeners.

But, Tallamy writes, if you fill your yard with insect-edible native plants, there will be plenty of insects for birds to feed their young and your yard would be contributing to the health of the greater landscape—and indirectly, human health.

Don’t worry, in a healthy habitat, your plants won’t be leafless.

So a stand of native trees and shrubs supporting native insects could produce more birds than say, a stand of Russian olive trees, an invasive exotic in Wyoming that has crowded out native species in many places. In fact, land managers are now working to eradicate it.

Beebalm

Beebalm (Monarda). Hummingbirds are also attracted to these tubular-shaped flowers in the mint family. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Gardeners can also choose native plants that will provide nectar and pollen for butterflies and bees. That’s important, as both are suffering declining populations.

Our natives are better adapted to our location, plant biologist and author Susan Tweit told the 100 people who took part at the Habitat Hero workshop in Cheyenne in March, organized by Laramie County Master Gardeners and the Cheyenne-High Plains Audubon Society. Native plants are also more resistant to our weather extremes.

And in our area, they often require less water than aliens, and little or no fertilizer, she added.

Designing wildscapes

Tweit also discussed landscape design, another of her specialties.

Landscape design is about pleasing combinations of color, form and texture at each season. Wildscaping considers appearance along with providing habitat functions.

The mingling of layers, from trees to shrubs to ground cover, besides aesthetic appeal, provides shelter, or cover, and foraging areas for a variety of species that may each prefer different heights and micro-habitats.

Tweit cautioned that “going native” does not mean a weedy-looking patch. You can still choose formal, cottage style, meadow, or minimalist. Simply fill the space with natives.

How to transition

People moving into a newly-built house usually get to work with a blank canvas. But where do you put native plants in an established yard?

The trick is to keep your high maintenance, water-loving conventional aliens, if you still want them, in one area of your yard. Don’t mix these with native plants, as too much water can be deadly.

Blanketflower

Blanketflower (Gaillardia). Photo by Barb Gorges.

You can gradually replace your alien trees and shrubs with natives. Replace alien annuals (like petunias) with native perennials. Widen your flower borders. And one year at a time, replace sections of your Kentucky bluegrass turf, which is another alien species.

Tweit said her method for converting lawn is to smother it with layers of newspaper held down with rocks.

She doesn’t recommend killing turf with black plastic. That method collects heat and cooks the grass, but it also kills important soil organisms. As a last resort, use Roundup, the least offensive herbicide. Follow directions.

At our house, when expanding flower beds, we cut clumps of turf with a sharp spade and either turn each piece upside down in place, or shake off the dirt and take the roots elsewhere to compost.

Think about naturalizing remaining lawn with small, spring-flowering bulbs, like species tulips. They provide pollen for bees when little else is blooming so early in the season. By the time the grass needs mowing, their vegetation will have died back.

Water

Water is part of the complete wildlife habitat. If you don’t have a pond or flowing water on your property, you can use a recirculating water pump in imaginative ways.

Or a valuable low-tech solution Susan mentioned is water in an upside down garbage can lid embedded in the ground, with rock perches around and in it. You can include a product called a mosquito dunk, which releases a bacteria in the water that is toxic only to mosquito larvae.

You may also try a patch of wet sand to attract butterflies.

Black-eyed Susan

This Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia) attracted a bee before its petals fully opened. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Native plant lists

Without being a field botanist, how will you know which plants are native to our area?

One resource is the book “Growing Native Plants of the Rocky Mountain Area,” co-authored by Jane and Robert Dorn of Lingle. Jane was also a presenter at the workshop. It features an illustrated selection of 500 plants, their favorite kinds of habitat and tips on growing them.

Hard copies are available through www.lulu.com. Cheaper, digital copies will be available soon through Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society, http://home.lonetree.com/audubon/.

Meanwhile, the chapter website has the Dorn’s list of 114 native species specifically recommended for our high plains.

Also at the website is a link to “Wyoming Wildscape, How to Design, Plant and Maintain Landscaping to Benefit People and Wildlife.”

It is a jointly sponsored publication of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, Bureau of Land Management, Audubon Rockies and Wyoming Partners in Flight.

This publication gets into the nitty-gritty of sustainable gardening practices and also has a plant list.

Finding natives

Native plants, by definition, are the plants that evolved in the local area. But local nurseries are only beginning to catch on to the value of natives.

It is cheaper to start your new wildscape from seed, of course, and there is a lot more variety available that way. Do not dig up native plants in the wild unless the site is about to be bulldozed, and only with permission.

The good news is, savvy nurseries and seed catalogs have more and more natives available. But be sure to read carefully as not every plant offered is suited to Zone 5, our USDA plant growing zone, though Zone 4 seems more appropriate.

Horticulturally improved varieties of native plants—selected for brighter colors, bigger flowers or longer bloom times—can be OK, Tallamy says. They are close enough to the original natives to function in the same way.

When shopping, avoid plants treated with neonicotinoids, types of systemic pesticides that poison bees when they collect pollen from treated plants. For more information, see the Xerces Society website, http://www.xerces.org.

How to become a Habitat Hero

Audubon Rockies wants to recognize everyone who strives to make their yard more wildlife friendly. Check www.HabHero.org to find out how to nominate your yard this summer.

A few native plants for the Cheyenne Area

Courtesy of Jane and Robert Dorn

Trees

Colorado Blue Spruce, Pinyon Pine, Rocky Mountain Juniper, Bigtooth Maple, Boxelder, Common Hackberry, Lanceleaf Cottonwood

Shrubs

Rocky Mountain Maple, Western Serviceberry, Western Chokecherry, Silver Sagebrush, Redosier Dogwood

Perennial and Annual Flowers

Western Columbine, Orange Butterflyweed, Winecups, Purple Beeplant (Cleome), Purple Coneflower, Common Blanketflower, Annual Sunflower, Prairie Blazingstar, Wild Bergamot (Monarda), Penstemon (many kinds), Black-eyed Susan

Grasses

Indian Ricegrass, Big Bluestem, Buffalograss, Basin Wildrye, Bluebunch Wheatgrass, Switchgrass

Where to shop

Try local nurseries and garden centers and then look for native plants through these regional sources.

http://alplains.com, www.applewoodseed.com, www.avseeds.com, www.bathgardencenter, www.bbbseed.com, www.fortcollinsnursery.com, www.highcountrygardens.com, www.wyomingplantcompany.com

More info

Douglas Tallamy, author of “Bringing Nature Home, How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants” – www.bringingnaturehome.net

Susan Tweit – www.SusanJTweit.com

Susan J. Tweit photo

In close proximity to Susan Tweit’s house, this bed of native plants is arranged more formally, with cobbles providing additional texture and mulch. Courtesy/Susan J. Tweit.

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