In the Garden:
Agastache 'Blue Fortune' is a magnet for pollinators, including this black swallowtail.
This spring, I pulled up sprouts of what I thought was mint that I had inadvertently transplanted when I moved some bulbs from a distant garden. Muttering to myself for my carelessness in spreading this invasive plant, I realized after a few minutes of weeding that I had been pulling not mint but agastache.
Agastache is a member of the mint family, and like other mints it has distinctive square stems so it's easy to confuse the two when plants are sprouting in early spring. Unlike mint, however, agastache is welcome in my garden for its abundant blooms, compact form, and pleasing aroma. Fortunately, this is a very forgiving plant and recovered quickly from my mistake.
If I were a betting person, I'd put my money on agastache especially the variety 'Blue Fortune' -- as a future plant award winner. It has everything you'd want in a perennial, including attractive flowers, a long bloom period, aromatic foliage, and few pest problems. Plus, the flowers are magnets for pollinators of all sorts, including bees, hummingbirds, and butterflies. The nectar-rich flowers are so coveted that a plant in full bloom quivers with the activity of these hungry visitors.
With its tongue-twister name, agastache begs for a common, easy-to-pronounce name. However, as is often the case, agastache's most frequently used common name, anise hyssop, is misleading: The plant is not related to anise, nor is it a true hyssop. Agastache's other common name, licorice mint, better describes the plant's aniselike aroma and mint-family lineage.
For those preferring to use botanical names, agastache can be pronounced in a number of ways, and there's little agreement among reference books: uh-GAS-tuh-kee, ag-uh-STACH-ee, ag-uh-STACK-ee, AG-uh-stack-ee, or ag-uh-STACH. It seems you can't go wrong with this one.
There are about 30 species of agastaches, and most of them are native to North America.
A. foeniculum. The most widely known species, this plant has been grown in gardens since the 1800s. Growing to a height of 3 to 4 feet, the plant is covered with spikes of smoky blue-violet flowers from summer to fall.
Agastache barberi. This plant's common name, giant hummingbird's mint, must refer to the size of the hummingbirds it attracts, since it's actually smaller than many other species, growing to a height of up to 2 feet. The plant's flowers are rose to pale magenta and resemble salvia blooms. Native to the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico, A. barbari is rated hardy in USDA Zones 6-10.
Agastache rupestris. This species grows to a height of up to 30 inches and boasts abundant orange and lavender flowers. Native to the Southwest, it is hardy in USDA Zones 5-9. Cultivated varieties include 'Sunset' and 'Desert Sunrise'.
Plant breeders have crossed species to produce some outstanding agastache hybrids, many with showier flowers and improved hardiness compared to the parent species.
'Blue Fortune' is a beauty, blooming nonstop from midsummer through fall with lovely lavender-blue flower spikes. It grows quite tall -- up to 36 inches -- forming a compact clump just 18 inches wide. Rated hardy in zones 5 to 9, this is the variety that thrives in my zone 4 garden.
'Purple Pygmy', introduced in 2001 by Thompson & Morgan, is the first dwarf hybrid, growing to a height of just 18 inches. Clusters of purple flowers cover the bushy, compact plants. It's hardy in zones 5-10. This variety received the Fleuroselect Quality Mark, having been judged by them to be "superior to the previously existing assortment."
These two hybrids are among the hardiest and best suited to the Northeast. Other varieties, including 'Tutti-Frutti', 'Summer Breeze', and 'Firebird', are rated hardy only to zones 6 or 7, making them chancy in much of New England.
The key to success with agastache is good drainage. Keep in mind the plant's Southwest origins and choose a site with full sun and very well-drained soil. You'll have better success with a lean soil than a rich, humusy one. The plants are tolerant of drought -- they are often used in xeriscaping (landscaping with drought-tolerant plants) -- so avoid overwatering. Even under the best conditions, agastaches tend to be short-lived. In cold regions, tuck plants up against a stone wall to provide shelter from the cold and wind, or grow the plants as annuals.
Situate agastache plants where you're likely to brush up against the leaves, releasing their appealing licorice scent. The flowers hold up well in both fresh and dried arrangements, and both flowers and foliage can be used to flavor beverages.
Agastache: Any way you say it, it's a great plant!
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