The Lamiaceae

Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) began to bloom this week.

Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa) is an easy-to-grow native plant that belongs to the Lamiaceae, or mint family. The square stems, strongly opposite leaves, and lipped flowers are family characteristics.

The Lamiaceae (the “-aceae” ending, pronounced “A-C-A,” always denotes a family) is a large and widespread plant family that includes over 230 genera and 7,000 species, mostly forbs (non-woody flowering plants) or small woody plants. It is commonly referred to as the mint family, and it includes most of our common culinary herbs, including the mints, basil, thyme, marjoram and oregano, rosemary, sage, and lavender. It also includes many familiar garden plants: in addition to beebalm (bergamot, Monarda), these include Agastache, Ajuga, Callicarpa, Caryopteris, Coleus, Glechoma (a weed), Lamium, Nepeta (catmints), Physostegia virginiana (obedient plant, a native perennial), Salvia (ornamental sages), and Stachys.

The aromas and flavors that make many members of this family pleasing to us as culinary herbs make them displeasing to animals. Most furry pests, like deer and rabbits and woodchucks, avoid all members of this family, which is why you can plant most culinary herbs (with the exception of parsley and dill, both members of the Apiaceae) in an unfenced garden. Although some insects do attack mints, most critters leave them alone.

Which leads us to their greatest benefit in the garden: they are distasteful to most four-footed garden pests, so if you scatter them throughout the garden, they protect or hide the more appealing plants. For example, Asters, Coreopsis, Phlox, and Echinacea are extremely attractive to deer and rabbits.But it you place these plants among members of the mint family, and they are much less likely to be eaten.

There are numerous native family members. Best known are several species of Monarda: M. fistulosa, shown above, blooms in shades of pink and lavender; M. didyma has bright red flowers. Both are about 3-4′ tall, perennial, and very easy to grow as long as they get at least half a day of sun. M. punctata, dotted mint, is an annual, although it self-seeds easily. It’s about 2′ tall, also a sun-lover, and is in bloom right now.

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Dotted mint (Monarda punctata) is in bloom now. Notice the beautiful flame-shaped milkweed pods behind it. There’s some late-blooming M. didyma to the right.

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M. punctata’s flowers are the small, lipped, dotted structures. The large curved white “petals” are bracts, or modified leaves.

Also in bloom now is Agastache foeniculum, or lavender hyssop, a biennial (but easy to keep going with seed). This plant has an anise, or licorice scent, and the edible flowers make a refreshing addition to salads (in small amounts only–the taste is very strong). It’s about 3′ tall and like its cousins needs a sunny spot.

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Agastache foeniculum (blue flowers to the right), which rabbits and deer don’t like, serving as a sentry beside Rudbechia triloba, which they do, very much.

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