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/.


Herbs: scent, flavor, flower and fun

Herbs in strawberry jar

Master gardener Kathy Shreve planted a strawberry jar outside her kitchen door this year with Thai basil, “Purple Ruffle” basil, flat-leaved parsley, sage, chives, Greek oregano, French thyme and summer savory, including the herbs required for several of her favorite varieties of ethnic cooking.

Published Sept. 6, 2015 in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s Journey section, “Herbs, Grow them for scent, flavor, flowers—or fun

Text and photos by Barb Gorges

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?

Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme

Remember me to one who lives there

She once was a true love of mine.

–traditional English ballad verse

            I have to admit, my interest in growing herbs was sparked by old lyrics made popular by Simon and Garfunkel. Back then, these four herbs mentioned were considered “essentials.” Now I grow them for their scents, flavors and flowers.

The definition of an “herb” is a useful plant, the leafy part, used in smaller quantities than vegetables.

Spices come from other plant parts–roots, bark, seeds.

Some herbs are grown as medicinals. However, without the oversight of a trained herbalist, I wouldn’t recommend experimenting with herbal remedies.

Instead, let’s look at culinary herbs in my garden–all easy to grow. My experience in Cheyenne is that some are annuals, while others self-seed. Some are short-lived perennials and some survive a number of winters.

I usually mulch my herb garden in late fall with a 3 to 4-inch layer of crispy, curled, dried leaves from our ash trees. Straw can also offer protection.

Remember to never treat herbs with pesticides of any kind– herbicides, insecticides or fungicides–if you plan to eat or cook with them. Otherwise, they don’t need anything that flowers and vegetables don’t also require.

Fall is a good time to check local nurseries, which may still have a few herb plants you can set on the window sill for the winter and plant outside next spring. Having fresh leaves to pluck means you don’t have to bother with drying.

Thyme sign

Master gardener Linnie Cough grows herbs using drip irrigation and wood mulch, and Victorian-era styled plant markers.

Next spring you can tuck your plants into a mostly sunny corner in your garden the way master gardener Linnie Cough has, next to vegetables or flowers. Or pop them into a strawberry planter like master gardener Kathy Shreve does. She sets it on the deck within reach of her kitchen door.

Herbs are happy in any situation, from containers to the symmetrical beds of formal herb gardens.

The four “essential” herbs

Parsley

Parsley flowering.

Parsley (Petroselinum) – This is a biannual classified into two groups, curly-leaved and the Italian flat-leaved. Mine self-seed and now new plants come up every spring. Chop leaves and add to soups, salads, Italian dishes, just about anything. Or dry or freeze them.

Sage

Sage

Sage (Salvia officinalis) – Don’t mix this up with sagebrush, which has toxic oils, even though it also has a woody stem, is evergreen and has leaves of sage-green (and now other colors). I’ve been able to keep plants growing for several years at a time. We flavor roasts with sage.

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) – Another woody herb, it is often seen as a little potted evergreen tree. Master gardener Michele Bohanan brings hers in for the winter. I’ve been able to mulch and overwinter the prostrate variety a few winters. Rosemary is great in meat and vegetable dishes.

Thyme

Thyme

Thyme (Thymus) – A low growing woody perennial in the mint family, some kinds work well as ground cover between patio stones. Apparently there are dozens of kinds, with different scents and ornamental leaves. T. vulgaris is the culinary type. We’ve admired its tiny flowers more than we’ve cooked with it. Perhaps we should put sprigs under our pillows, as they did in the Middle Ages, to aid sleep and ward off nightmares.

More mints

Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) can be made into tea. I like it for the lemony scent. But it is a mint and has invaded most of my raised bed. I yank it out wherever I want to plant something else. Wise gardeners keep it in containers as they would with chocolate mint (Mentha x piperita ‘Chocolate’), peppermint and spearmint, in containers, either above ground or in the ground.

Oregano

Oregano

Oregano (Origanum vulgare) – It’s one of my favorites—for Italian cooking as well as for the tiny flowers that attract lots of bees. It is a mint, but fairly well-behaved, spreading each year just enough to dig up and share some with friends.

The other Italian

Sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum) – There are many varieties with leaves of different colors and flavors. This annual, is easy to start from seed indoors and transplant to the garden, but the first hint of frost will finish it off. Besides Italian dishes, the leaves are also sprinkled in salads and soups. Pinch off flowers for better foliage, but leave some for the bees. This year Kathy grew “Purple Ruffle” and Thai basil.

Edible flowers—just the petals

Chives

Chives

Chives (Allium schoenoprasum) – A clump of chives is self-perpetuating. Mine is 25 years old. The grass-like leaves are easy to snip into any dish where onion would be at home. The ball-shaped purple flowers are also edible as individual florets. This is one of the culinary herbs native to North America.

Nasturtium (Tropaeolume) – The showy orange and yellow flowers are reward enough for taking time to grow this annual, but the flowers can add color and a peppery flavor to salads. Direct seed it in the garden in spring.

Lavender

Lavender

Lavender (Lavandula) – I love the scent in soaps and sachets. Leaves can be used with roasts and the flowers on desserts. “Munstead” is supposed to be cold hardy. Mine has overwintered several years now.

Calendula

Calendula

Calendula (Calendula) – This is another self-seeder after it’s been in the garden a season. I’ve grown it for years, though I haven’t tried strewing the petals over dishes, like a poor man’s saffron. Its other name is “Pot Marigold.”

Beebalm

Beebalm

Bee balm (Monarda) – A variety I have with over-sized red flowers has been very popular with hummingbirds that migrate through Cheyenne mid-July through August. A slow-to-spread mint, the crushed leaves smell interesting and the flowers can be added to salads.

Other herbs to try

Cheyenne gardeners have good luck with a number of other herbs: borage, chamomile, cilantro (the seeds are coriander, a spice), dill, fennel, lovage, Greek oregano and summer savory.

Ways to preserve harvested herbs

In her book, “The Garden Primer”—a great all-around gardening book suitable for our climate—author Barbara Damrosch explains that what we’re after, flavor or scent, is the result of plant oils. Harvesting and storage should maximize them—if you aren’t just snipping a few leaves to add immediately to the soup.

Hang dry – The oils are at their strongest just before plants bloom. On a nice day, cut stems and hang them upside down, inside a paper bag, to dry. Strip dry leaves and store in airtight containers.

Freeze in ice cube trays – Basil doesn’t freeze well. Damrosch suggests pureeing it with butter or oil and then freezing it in ice-cube trays, then popping the cubes into a zipper lock bag so it’s easy to pull out what you need later.

Freeze whole in sealed bag – Other herbs with less tender leaves can simply be frozen in a plastic bag.

Preserve in oils and vinegars – Another way to preserve herb flavors is in oils and vinegars. Recipes abound in cook books and online.

Recipes with herbs

Gardening magazines are rife with recipes seasoned with herbs. My old favorite, “Organic Gardening” magazine, has morphed into “Rodale’s Organic Life,” but it still includes recipes, giving me ideas for more herbs to grow. And then I’ll need to look for seeds in the specialty catalogs, like Richters, www.richters.com, in which I counted 38 kinds of mint.

It’s fun having a collection of herbs, even just for rubbing a few leaves so I can enjoy their scent while working in the garden.