Every year, the Perennial Plant Association selects a Perennial Plant of the Year.
For 2021, the Perennial Plant of the Year is lesser calamint (Calamintha nepeta subsp. nepeta), also called “beautiful mint.” Calamintha comes from kalos, a Greek word meaning beautiful, and mentha, the Latin word for mint; hence its common name. And, although this plant is not widely known, it is deserving of wider use in home gardens for its many beautiful attributes.
The PPA is a trade association of people in the herbaceous perennial industry, including growers, retailers, landscape designers and contractors, and educators. Some of the outstanding perennials chosen in the years since 1990 include butterfly weed, threadleaf amsonia, “Sun King” aralia, hellebore, “May Night” salvia, “Hummelo” betony, hakone grass, false blue indigo, and many others.
Calamintha nepeta, a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) is “an amazing perennial,” according to Jennifer Davit, horticulturalist at the Lurie Garden, a modern naturalistic perennial planting designed by Piet Oudolf for Chicago’s waterfront Millennium Park.
She is quoted by Noel Kingsbury in his book, “Gardening with Perennials: Lessons from Chicago’s Lurie Garden,” and goes on to praise lesser calamint’s long-lasting flowers that “feed ... our bees for up to four months.”
Not your average mint plant
Lesser calamint is a low, mounding, bushy perennial, reaching a height of about 12 to 18 inches and a spread of about 12 to 24 inches. It is cold hardy in Zones 5-9, an easy-care and reliable plant that is generally pest-free. It thrives in average, well-drained soil but also does well in dry, droughty and alkaline soils. While it can tolerate very light shade, it grows best in warm, open sites with full sun and good air circulation. More shaded, damp or humid conditions can lead to minor problems with powdery mildew disease in summer — about the only pest you may encounter.
And should the word “mint” conjure images of plants running rampant, rest assured that lesser calamint lacks the aggressive nature of many other mints; it is not invasive or weedy. Stems rise from a compact clump which stays put; the plant may get woody at the base, but it can easily be cut back in spring or fall to keep it neat and tidy.
Leaves are small, grayish green, somewhat hairy, and wonderfully aromatic, smelling sweetly of mint when brushed or crushed. This is one plant you will want to touch for its beautiful scent, so it’s a great plant to include along walkways, paths, patios and retaining walls; at the front of flower borders and herb gardens; and in containers and rock gardens. Its strongly minty foliage is resistant to deer browsing.
Its flowers are another outstanding feature of the beautiful mint. The white to pale blue flowers are like other mints — small, tubular and two-lipped, clustered in the leaf axils of floriferous stems — but borne in cloud-like profusion for a period of six weeks or longer, from summer to fall. Flowers may shade from white to light violet as summer ends and temperatures cool. Pollinators of all kinds, from diverse bees and insects to butterflies and hummingbirds, are attracted to its abundance of nectar and pollen.
Because of its neat, well-behaved and sturdy habit, lesser calamint is a terrific filler plant in pollinator, perennial, rock and meadow gardens. Interplanted with taller and more leggy perennials such as purple coneflower, it both complements the larger flowers and supports the taller stems. Other suggested perennial combinations include: Gaura “Whirling Butterflies,” Liatris spicata, and Perovskia “Little Spire.” It’s also recommended for mingling with tight clumping ornamental grasses such as moor grass (Molinia) and autumn moor grass (Sesleria).
As with many facets of our lives, a perennial garden comprises a cast of characters. Some perennial plants are flashy “rock stars” that both draw and demand our attention; others are quiet, supporting players that prove to be the rock-steady foundation of the show. Such is lesser calamint, which offers much to the gardener and demands little in return. Busy gardeners do well to include easy, versatile, reliable performers like the beautiful mint in their perennial garden plans and plantings.