It is winter still, and the garden still slumbers. Most gardeners are already feeling the “itch” to plant seeds and play in the dirt, but since that’s not possible in the frozen soil we content ourselves with garden planning. It’s a great time to ponder our goals for the garden.
When time or space is limited, we want to grow the most versatile plants possible-- plants that look good for several weeks rather than only a few days, plants that are useful for more than just foliage or flowers, plants that nurture wildlife and our souls. And, if that plant is durable, easy to grow, easy to propagate, and can tough it out in a range of locations and soils, it’s even better!
The plant that fits this description is Agastache, a large and diverse family of fragrant, tidy plants that bloom for months rather than days. The most familiar family member is Agastache foeniculum, or Anise Hyssop. This plant has been an essential part of the garden since ancient times. In our colonial gardens, Anise Hyssop was an important tea plant, brewed for its lovely, light licorice flavor. In Asian gardens, it is a culinary herb often combined with beef or pork. Today’s chefs use the young leaves in salads and garnish canapés or cocktails with the pretty purple flowers.
Anise Hyssop is truly an amazing plant, growing 2-3’ in height. The attractive foliage is dark green, with dainty scalloped leaves that impart an anise flavor and scent. The flowers that appear in early summer are fuzzy purple spikes. If they are clipped for the kitchen, bouquets, or dried for wreaths and potpourri, the plant will continue to produce blooms until hard freeze! Until they are harvested, the blooms provide a continual source of nectar for bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds, adding a lively dimension to the garden scene.
This hardy perennial (Zone 2) thrives in average to poor soil, in full sun or light shade. It is a member of the mint family, as shown by its square stems, but does not travel aggressively by underground roots. It does self-seed if flowers are allowed to mature and produce seeds, and can also be propagated easily by division in early spring.
Over the years, plant breeders have selected plants so that today’s gardeners have additional choices. Anise Hyssop is now available with pure white or pale pink blooms, in addition to lavender-blue to purple. “Honeybee Blue” is slightly more compact than the old-fashioned anise hyssop, with slightly more blue-toned lavender blooms. “Golden Jubilee” Anise Hyssop brings surprisingly lovely golden foliage that sets off its purple blooms, and stays shorter than standard anise hyssop.
There are many other members of the Agastache family that are gems in the garden as well. Although they are not all reliably hardy here in central Indiana, nor are they as useful in the kitchen or teapot, they deserve a place in the border for their exciting colors, fragrance, and abundant nectar supplies. The most well-known of this group is Agastache cana, often called “Hummingbird” Plant, because the hummers just love them! The foliage is more silvery-gray rather than dark green, and the leaves are generally very narrow. As this would indicate, these plants are very drought and heat resistant. The heights vary from 1-4’ in height, depending upon conditions, and the fragrance is a delightful mixture of anise and spice. What sets these plants apart is the flower color and shape. Unlike Anise Hyssop, whose blooms are tightly packed tiny tubular flowers at the top of a stiff stem, Agastache cana’s flowers are much larger, more widely spaced on lightly curved stems, and come in an array of “sunrise” colors: coral, rosy-pink, salmon, apricot, lavender-pink, and bright orange. Most of them are only hardy in Zone 6 or higher, so I prefer to grow them as tender perennials, often in pots that I bring indoors for the winter. I’ve grown many varieties, but this year, I’m trying “Purple Pygmy” which should stay about 18” tall, and is known for its really abundant flowers in a deeper rosy-purple than most other A.canas. “Tutti Fruitti” has lavender-pink flowers in abundance that are as sweetly fragrant as the silvery foliage.
Another stunning agastache is “Black Adder” whose smokey-purple 2-3’ flower stalks provide a show. In addition, as the temperatures cool down in early autumn, the foliage also takes on a purple tone. This one is definitely a Zone 7, but well worth space in the garden, or a large container to lure the hummingbirds closer.
Agastache rupestris is yet another cousin from the south with narrow gray-green foliage. “Apache Sunrise” has warm apricot-orange-pink tubular blooms with lavender undertones from June to October. It grows 18-30”.
Look for these special plants for all-season pleasure, for both you, the butterflies, and the hummingbirds!