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 gifts: books, magazines, classes

2016-12-garden-mags-barb-gorgesPublished Dec. 4, 2016, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Holiday gifts for the gardener on your list.”

By Barb Gorges

I asked members of the Laramie County Master Gardeners for their top picks for gardening magazines and books to give you ideas for gifts for the gardeners you know.

Gardening conditions in Cheyenne are somewhat unique so advice from these publications must be taken with a bit of local knowledge:

1) We have alkaline soils so ignore advice to add lime and wood ash;

2) We are officially in USDA plant hardiness zone 5 but microclimates can be harsher or milder;

3) Our average annual precipitation is 15 inches. Even if you run your well dry, you can’t reproduce a wetter, more humid location, which some plants require, like somewhere else in Zone 5—say southern Iowa.

MAGAZINES

Most of the magazines recommended are available at local bookstores. Discounted multi-year subscriptions and back issues are available online.

We are lucky that Colorado’s gardening climate is close to Cheyenne’s, making our local choice The Colorado Gardener (www.ColoradoGardener.com, free at outlets, including the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, and online, or $18/5 issues/year delivered). It is a full-color, tabloid-style, 16-page newsmagazine. In addition to articles and a calendar of Front Range garden-related events, even the advertising is informative.

Another option is Rocky Mountain Gardening (www.RockyMountainGardening.com, $24/4 issues/year). Previously known as “Zone 4,” it covers Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. It was recommended by Catherine Wissner, horticulturist at the Laramie County Cooperative Extension office, and several other respondents. Topics in a recent issue included hellstrip gardening (the hot, dry strip along the curb) and frost blankets (written by a Smoot, Wyoming, gardener). Wyoming is well-represented in the news section.

Judy Kowrach was one of two people who endorsed Garden Gate (www.GardenGateMagazine.com, $20/6 issues/year). With no ads, it is full of tips, plant profiles and design ideas. Despite its Iowa origins, much of the information is applicable to Cheyenne. Even without a subscription, you can sign up online for its free eNotes.

Kim Parker and several others listed Fine Gardening (www.FineGardening.com, $29.95/6 issues/year). It does a splendid job of inciting people to commit acts of gardening. I like their warnings on which featured plants are officially classified as invasive in which state and their scientific plant name pronunciation guide. And their deep website full of free garden and plant information.

2016-12-garden-design            I couldn’t come up with an issue of Garden Design (www.GardenDesign.com, $45/4 issues/year), but looking at a preview copy online, it also is sumptuously photographed. Its price reflects the 148 ad-free pages per issue. And its website is also full of free information, even for non-subscribers.

Finally, Rodale’s Organic Life (www.RodalesOrganicLife.com, $15/6 issues/year) is the latest incarnation of Rodale’s Organic Gardening and Farming. In 1978, that publication printed my interview of a man who built a better bluebird house. These days, think of it as the organic version of Better Homes and Gardens—mostly lifestyle, little gardening.

BOOKS

2016-12-garden-primer-rodales-ultimate-encyclopedia            My primary garden book, recommended to me several years ago by Shane Smith, director of the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens, is The Garden Primer by Barbara Damrosch (2008, Workman Publishing, 820 pages). Written by a gardener from the cold climate of Maine, it covers every aspect of organic home gardening in well-organized chapters, but with an index for quick consultation.

Another option is Rodale’s Ultimate Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening (2009, www.rodaleinc.com, 720 pages). Earlier editions have been on my shelf for years. It’s a tad more technical, but both this and The Garden Primer are good how-to guides and problem solvers.

2016-12-peterson-kaufman-insect-guides            Tava Collins recommended National Audubon Society Field Guide to Insects and Spiders (1980, Alfred A. Knopf, $20) for help identifying garden friends and foes. Similar guides are available in the Kaufman and Peterson field guide series.

Collins also recommended three books written by Colorado gardeners: Rocky Mountain Gardener’s Handbook, John Cretti (2012, Cool Springs Press); Rocky Mountain Getting Started Garden Guide, John Cretti (2015, Cool Springs Press); and Cutting Edge Gardening in the Intermountain West, Marcia Tatroe (2007, Big Earth Publishing).

For special gardening techniques that will work in our area, these next two were recommended.

Marie Madison cited The Bountiful Container: Create Container Gardens of Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits and Edible Flowers by Maggie Stuckey and Rose Marie Nicholas McGee (2002, Workman Publishing).

Susan Carlson, who I interviewed a few months ago about straw bale gardening, apprised me of a new edition of her favorite book: Straw Bale Gardens Complete: All-New Information on Urban & Small Spaces, Organics, Saving Water – Make Your Own Bales With or Without Straw by Joel Karsten (2015, Cool Springs Press, $24.99).

If your giftee’s interest is in growing native plants that attract pollinators or in identifying plants on the prairie, try these. Keep in mind the definition of “weeds” depends on the situation.

2016-12-weeds-of-the-west-rangeland-plants            Carlson listed Rangeland Plants: Wyoming Tough by Smith et. al. (2015, publication B-1265) It is a free download at www.wyoextension.org/publications or $8 at the Laramie County Extension office, 307-633-4383.

Richard Steele found Weeds of the West (Western Society of Weed Science, 2012, $34 at www.wsweedscience.org) to be particularly useful while manning the “Ask a Master Gardener” table at the farmers market this fall.

Collins mentioned the classic Meet the Natives: A Field Guide to Rocky Mountain Wildflowers, Trees and Shrubs: Bridging the Gap between Trail and Garden by M. Walter Pesman. It was revised by Denver Botanic Gardens staff in 2012 and republished by Big Earth Publishing.

2016-12-undaunted-garden            The author of one of my favorites, The Undaunted Garden: Planting for Weather-Resilient Beauty (2010, Fulcrum Publishing), Lauren Springer Ogden, is a firm believer in “the right plant in the right place” and is the originator of “hellstrip” gardening. Her photography is inspiring. She speaks often at garden events on the Front Range.

Her book would be a good accompaniment to the next two books, helping you to pick appropriate local plants to interpret their lessons. These books are about planet-friendly landscape gardening.

Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West (2015, Timber Press). This may be intended to introduce landscape designers to more natural, sustainable plantings. But you can apply the advice to your own yard, such as using groundcover plants instead of shredded bark mulch everywhere.

2016-12-garden-revolution-planting-in-a-post-wild            The other is Garden Revolution: How Our Landscapes Can Be a Source of Environmental Change by Larry Weaner and Thomas Christopher (2016, Timber Press). Proponents of the “right plant in the right place” too, the authors have designed this book to help you understand their premise: that with knowledge of your eco region and local habitat, you can plant a garden that will evolve over time with a minimal amount of assistance, i.e. chemicals and labor.

LECTURES AND CLASSES

One option: Give your favorite gardener tuition for the 10-week Master Gardener class beginning in January. For more information, call 307-633-4383.

Or give them tickets to the spring gardening lecture series Laramie County Master Gardeners is offering in conjunction with the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens. Call 307-637-6458.