Bees love it, butterflies love it, and moths love it. Without a doubt, Calamintha nepeta subsp. nepeta (is that a fun name, or what?) is among the most reliable, and most overlooked, pollinator plants available. Calamint, often mistaken for catmint (which it resembles), is a mint-family relative that doesn’t stop blooming from late spring through fall in my little corner of the world. Tiny, lipped, tubular flowers climb sturdy but flexible stems; often they emerge blue and white and maintain a tender blue throughout the season, but unless your knees and eyesight are superb, the overall appearance seems to be a shining white. In this respect, calamint also resembles baby’s breath, but it tends to be less temperamental.
Seen from a distance, the plant resembles a low cumulus cloud; when backlit, it glows.
Narrow stalks form a near-perfect mound reaching 18 to 24 inches, and these slender stems manage to retain that habit through all sorts of natural insults. While many similar plants (I’m looking at you, Nepeta) may tend to open at the center and collapse, calamint stays strong through the worst of downpours as well as spates of crushing Midwest heat and humidity. (It’s not recommended, however, for gardens in the Deep South.) One recent storm pounded the property with 2 inches of rain in just under an hour, but my calamint sprang right back while surrounding plants were exhausted. (I apologize to my good friend Nepeta for the slam. I love catmint. So do my cats. But it can be frustrating.)
Medium-green, matte-finish, ovate leaves cover the stems. Each leaf is no more than about ¾ to 1 inch long, but the effect is a bushiness that helps this herbaceous perennial mimic a small, densely growing shrub. Leaves are strongly aromatic, especially when brushed or crushed.
Calamintha loves full sun, but performs nicely in areas with intermittent to part shade. Average to dry soil is preferred; in fact, this selection is reliably tolerant of drought and can handle less-than- optimal soils. I rarely have to provide supplemental water.
Name: Calamintha nepeta subsp. nepeta
Common name: Calamint, lesser calamint
Hardiness: Zones 4 to 9
Mature height: 18 to 24 inches
Mature spread: 18 to 24 inches
Classification: Herbaceous perennial
Landscape use: Excellent in rock gardens and mixed beds; good, taller groundcover plant that will fill in and require very little maintenance; can be used to edge walkways so that the fragrance is evident as visitors amble past Ornamental characteristics: Mound-forming and sturdy stems create a small, shrubby appearance; tiny, tubular blue and white flowers emerge in spring and remain through frost; small, ovate, medium- to gray-green leaves maintain a clean presence all season
Pollinators seem to love this plant; often the stems quiver with the presence of small bees and butterflies. If clients are concerned about the presence of bees, as we’ve heard lately in the popular pollinator debate, let them know that the industrious little guys are so busy, and so happy, that they’re generally not interested in humans. I’ve walked past and through my planting so often when scores of bees are present, and they’ve not shown any sign of aggression.
Conversely, calamint is rarely attractive to pests and is reliably disease resistant. One particularly humid summer I spotted a bit of powdery mildew, but in its near-10 years in my garden, that’s the only incident.
Come late fall, I cut the stems back to a few inches tall; this helps to remove spent stems, encourage spring growth and prevent seeding. This is an easy task quickly accomplished, and it’s often not performed until sometime in November or December.
Not all plants have to be spectacular. In fact, those few that qualify often are fleeting stars in the garden that burn bright and then burn out. That’s not to say there’s no room for dazzling, magnificent specimens. But we need to embrace those that form a foundation and serve, quietly, efficiently and beautifully, for years. Calamint is one of these must-haves.