david salman’s mint cousins for a garden abuzz

Agastache and Salvia copyright High Country GardensIN THE MOOD for something aromatic, hot-colored, and abuzz with insect pollinators, butterflies and hummingbirds? With the help of High Country Gardens’ founder David Salman, let’s make a beeline to plants in the Mint family, like Salvia and Agastache and even wacky-looking Phlomis, to enliven our gardens.  

David, also known as the Xeric Gardener, is chief horticulturist of High Country Gardens in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The former garden center, now closed, began in 1984, but you can visit anytime online, or in the print catalog (published since 1993; the catalog-request form is here).

I first met David through my work years ago at Martha Stewart Living, in the days when almost nobody even knew what terms like or water wise, let alone xeric or even sustainable meant as they pertained to our gardens. I’ve been thrilled and impressed to watch David teach and inspire the nation–earning the 2008 American Horticultural Society’s Great American Gardener award, among other honors.

prefer the podcast?

David Salman of High Country GardensDAVID SALMAN was my guest on the latest radio podcast. You can listen anywhere, anytime: Locally, in my Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) region, “A Way to Garden” airs on Robin Hood Radio’s three stations on Monday at 8:30 AM Eastern, with a rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. It is available free on iTunes, the Stitcher app, or streaming from RobinHoodRadio.com or via its RSS feed. The February 10, 2014 show can be streamed here now. Robin Hood is the smallest NPR station in the nation; our garden show marks the start of its fifth year in March, and is syndicated via PRX.

David and I share a passion for pollinator- and hummingbird-friendly plants, and so the mints, technically the Lamiaceae, the seventh-largest family of flowering plants in the world with 7,500-ish species in at least 236 genera says Kew–are often where the action is.  In the latest radio podcast, we talked about his favorites—and how gardeners around the country can use them.

my mint-family q&a with david salman

Q. First, let’s just get everyone in the mint mindset—visualizing what plants in the family that they might know, besides the true mints (genus Mentha), or catmints (Nepeta).

A. One of the most popular are the Salvia, or sages. And then there are lamb’s ears (Stachys), for instance.

Q. And a lot of “herb garden” things are in there, too: basil and rosemary, thyme, oregano or marjoram, melissa, and even lavender—some more closely related than others. 

So let’s start at the letter “A,” with Agastache. I had to laugh at your recent blog post on the genus, which had a headline like, “You say tomAto and I say tomahto,” alluding to the fact that nobody knows how to pronounce this genus’s name. How do you say it?

Agastache 'Blue Blazes' from High Country GardensA. In Colorado and New Mexico, we generally say the name as A gastä key, A gas tā key or A gas key. I’ve also heard it spoken as A ga stash ē or A gas tash.  If all that gets too confusing: hummingbird mint is an easy one to use.

Q. So tell us more about the hummingbird mints.  You blogged about them as not just for gardeners in the desert Southwest, but for gardens all over the country.

A. Agastache is a North American genus—though one species (A. rugosum) strayed and found itself on the Korean peninsula. When you see a big healthy plant in full bloom, it sticks with you and gets everyone growing them.

I kind of divide them into two groups: the blue-flowering ones, and then the ones that flower in shades of pink, and rose-pink and orange, and often bicolor orange and pink on the same flowering spike.

The blue ones tend to be hybrids between the anise hyssop, A. foeniculum, which is native to the Midwestern U.S. and so has a great deal of cold hardiness, and the European breeders started to cross it with the Korean species. Probably one of the best-known and most growable in terms of tolerance to damp soils and colder temperatures is A. ‘Blue Fortune’ (hardy to Zone 4).

Other blue ones I especially like: ‘Purple Haze,’ and ‘Blue Blazes’ [photo above]. ‘Blue Blazes’ is a great big blue-flowered one up to 4 feet and fabulous for pollinators—it attracts both bees and butterflies and hummingbirds. Generally the blue-flowered ones tend to attract pollinators, and the Southwestern ones, the reds and rose-pinks and oranges, attract hummingbirds—but this one attracts both.

Agastache rupestris from High Country GardensQ. So the Southwest is where the hot colors come from?

A. It’s probably not the botanists’ way of dividing the genus, but in terms of gardening practicality, that’s a good way to look at them. The blue-flowered ones also tolerate more moisture.

Q. In your recent article on the Agastache, you talk about giving them some “tough love.” Tell us more!

A. I’m kind of a tough love style of gardener. I give things just the bare minimum to get established, and then with the exception of a fall soil feed they’re kind of on their own.

This is a group of plants that doesn’t like to be fussed and hovered over, particularly when it comes to water and fertilizer.

I think we tend to express our love for our gardens with water, and a lot of plants we promptly love to death by giving them too much water. The hummingbird mints are a group that don’t want that, and they particularly don’t like a lot of fertilizer—and especially chemical fertilizer. It causes them to grow lushly and act like and annual, and not overwinter.

Q. My anise hyssop makes a lot of seedlings. Should I leave them or not? 

A. The hummingbird mints do like to self-sow, and if you have several varieties growing in your garden, they are a bit promiscuous and will cross as the bees move from flower to flower.  So you do get a lot of “garden mutts,” so I tend to pull a lot of the seedlings. These hybrids seedlings often aren’t as attractive as the cultivar you planted—though I am always looking in case one has a particularly nice scent to the foliage (the whole genus is aromatic—a strong mint smell, or even licorice [as in A. rupestris, photo above], or sweetly herbal).

Q. Close cousins then: the garden sages, or Salvia. These are not only in the same family as Mentha and Agastache, but even in the same sub-family and tribe as those two—so very closely related, taxonomically speaking. How do you look at the sages, David?

Salvia May Night from High Country GardensA. I divide them between the Old World species—from Europe, Asia, and even Africa—and then our native species to North America.

The European species are the traditional perennial varieties that have been in the trade for many years—like ‘May Night’ [photo above]. Usually referred to as Salvia nemerosa or superba, they are generally perennial, and tough, cold-hardy and best of all: They love clay soils.  And if you have friends that are beekeepers, they’ll be happy your garden is filled with these European species, since they are kind of “home cooking” for honey bees (who came from Europe, not North America).

Q. And then others, unlike the herbaceous perennials we just talked about, are woody and even shrubby where they are native, or hardy. I’ve seen giant ones in California, for instance.

A. Yes, many of those are our North American natives, and the epicenter for them is Mexico, up into the Southwestern U.S., and California. Some can get to the size of a medium shrub—but they’re not very cold-hardy, so they are often used as annuals elswhere. They’re very vigorous, and grow and flower in a single season, so they can put on a fabulous show as annuals.

High Country Gardens' Salvia Raspberry DelightQ. Favorites to recommend?

A. I’ve been working with three species—Salvia greggii, S. microphylla (which means little leaf) and S. lemmonii—for years, doing a lot of hybridizing to create more cold-hardy types. Salvia ‘Raspberry Delight’ [photo above] has been successfully cold-hardy up into the Denver area, Zone 5, for example.

Q. As long as it doesn’t have “wet feet” in winter?

A.  Like the hummingbird mints, the sages are native to leaner and faster-draining soils. So east of the Mississippi they make great container plants, and can grow in pots for many years. You can pull the pot into a bright garage, or sunroom, or under the eaves–like in the mid-Atlantic, or Philadelphia, for instance. Many of these bush salvias—‘Furman’s Red,’ a greggii, for example–are very successful in those areas.

Salvia mexicana Limelight from High Country GardensQ. What about some special blue-flowered types?

A. Salvia mexicana–a fall bloomer–has fantastic chartreuse calyces to contract its flowers, and the selection ‘Limelight’ is amazing [above photo].

Phlomis russeliana at High Country GardensQ. Now there’s one mint relative that relatively few gardeners know about out here in the East, at least: Phlomis. It’s not quite as closely related as the others we talked about—but oh, it’s wonderful. I know you agree, David. (I grew P. russeliana here for like 15 years…not sure what ever happened to it but it’s time to bring it back.)

A. I’m currently growing Phlomis russeliana (a great plant; popular and yellow-flowered) [photo above], and a beautiful lavender-pink flowered species P. cashmeriana [photo below], which blooms in shade or sun out here.  And I have a superb new hardy species to be sold through High Country Gardens this fall: P. angustissima (a Turkish endemic species). They’re worth finding and planting.

Phlomis cashmeriana at High Country GardensQ. Their flowers always reminded me of flying saucers or space ships, the way they were arranged around the stem, if you know what I mean.

A. I believe they’re called verticasters—the towering flower spikes with little groups of flowers spaces individually up the stems. They really have a wonderful architectural aspect to them.

(All photos courtesy of and/or copyright to High Country Gardens.)

  1. Pam in Santa Fe says:

    I do wish that the High Country garden center in Santa Fe were still open, but it has been closed for a year or so. Has Mr. Salman indicated that it will re-open? Sure hope so.

    Very informative article. I’m a big fan of hummingbird mint because the rabbits on our property leave it alone. A very good thing.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Mia. They are more shrubby — like a Salvia, for instance — than like a true Mint with all those underground runners. I have only grown P. russeliana (I am in Zone 5B in the Northeast) and it never went anywhere to speak of. Whether a plant is a pest for you depends where you garden, of course (climate, soil, rainfall…). But these plant (again like Salvia or Agastache) will self-sow I think when happy (easy to pull up if you like).

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Karen. On the High Country Gardens website, they clarify the rainfall/hardiness zones for each of their plants. The wonderful plant database called Great Plant Picks, geared to the PNW area, lists Agastache, Salvia and Phlomis as recommended. You can search here. Of course your rainfall (especially winter damp), soil conditions (needs to be good drainage for best overwintering) and so on can vary from garden to garden — and affect your results no matter where you are located.

    2. Lillian Osborne says:

      Salvias and Agastache do well in most of the Northwest. If you live in the heavy clay areas be sure to amend your soil to provide excellent drainage. Many of these plants are also wonderful in raised beds, pots, and large mixed containers.

  2. Jim says:

    I’ve been growing phlomis russeliana in my Phoenicia, NY (z. 5) garden for about 15 years as well. It creates a wonderful, dense ground cover of broad grey-green leaves. In recent years, however, it has developed areas of bare, woody stems and the blooms have dwindled. I assume that I should dig and divide and have already done that to some extent. But I’m concerned about the fact that the runners, which don’t seem all that “rooted,” are not flourishing. Any advice?

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Jim. I think a lot of these sort of “sub-shrubby” perennials can do what you are describing over time. Mine did (it had gotten too shaded, which I think contributed to its weakening, along with age. When I have an old perennial declining that I have let go too long I like to dig it all out and cut it up and replant the most vigorous parts.

  3. Alejandro says:

    Many times when you buy perennial plants on line you check the flowering period the nursery reports. It usually reads something like: “blooms from May to October” and you just have to laugh. I got Agastache ‘Ava’ from High Country Gardens 2 years ago. The first year it was another OK plant in my Northeast garden in zone 5b. The second year it was stunning.AND it did bloom for months on end, not looking shaggy at any point in time. I usually mulch my plants with compost but in the case of agastaches I found that they are happier and overwinter better if you use a mulch of gravel around the crown.

  4. Dahlink says:

    Increasingly I am trying to buy natives and buy local, but I love love love High Country Gardens! I had good results from one of their planned garden collections (even though I split it up and planted the plants in more than one location).

  5. Thanks Margaret for highlighting dependable, long-blooming Agastaches. I’m especially enamored of Agastache rupestris for its story. It was first collected by Meriwether Lewis on the Lewis & Clark Expedition.

  6. Thanks for highlighting the differences between the salvias and agastaches. I hope the orange flowering agastache I planted in Callicoon NY last fall survive this winter. I mulched heavily, didn’t feed them, and trimmed back pretty hard. It will be a lesson to see what comes up.

  7. joseph conrad says:

    Phlomis is Native to the eastern mediterranean area. I prefer to grow Native plants in order to sustain our Pennsylvania Eco-system. Can you suggest some alternative Native plantings?

  8. Barbara in SF says:

    Thank you, Margaret, for the interview and article.

    In answer to Pam: David has no intention at this time to reopen the retail Santa Fe Gardens store, but the mail order business is still selling an amazing collection of plants perfect for our region. He recently held a weekend sale of leftover stock at the site of the former SFG, and I grabbed my share of the unusual plants! Many of the plants sold by High Country Gardens are named selections. The original species are usually great too, but without the special bloom colors, selected size, floriferousness, etc. Of course, anyone could grow a bed of the species and select the best individuals to propagate. David is just very good at it!

    The southwestern salvias are actually something of a “hybrid swarm” in northern Mexico, southern Texas and reaching into Arizona and New Mexico. If someone mapped the “pure” species, assuming they can be identified as such, everything in between those geographical points will be a hybrid of up to four or five endemic species. As David suggests, that characteristic makes them ripe for breeding! (Please excuse the pun.)

    Another excellent human resource for the genus Salvia is Rich Dufresne. I don’t know what he’s up to now, but he probably knows as much about the genus as anyone, and has been a resource for many of us.

    Happy gardening!

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