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Is that white catmint? No, it's calamint.
The 2021 Perennial Plant of the Year
Since 1991, the Perennial Plant Association has named the Perennial Plant of the Year.
That’s 31 perennials. In that time, the vast majority have been show-stoppers: brightly coloured, long blooming or with striking or fresh foliage all summer long, not to mention great fall interest, little to no pest and disease problems, drought resistance, low maintenance and often attracting the interest of bees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
Only five have been what could be described as more restrained in that they are predominantly foliage plants: Calamagrostis acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ (the now ubiquitous erect ornamental grass), Athyrium niponicum ‘Pictum’ (the ghostly fern), Hakonechloa macra ‘Aureola’ (the striped golden form of the beautiful Japanese forest grass) Panicum virgatum ‘Northwind’ (the dense but also delicate cultivar of our native switch grass) and Aralia cordata ‘Sun King’ (a perennial masquerading as a shade-tolerant gold or chartreuse shrub).
It is interesting to consider how each choice is somewhat representative of the year. But perhaps no more so than in 2021.
This year, that is, this tentative year, when much seems changed but we’re all still holding our collective breath, the choice is much more restrained. It is as if to say, “Don’t rock the boat 2021. We don’t want to show off, we don’t want to stop traffic, we just want to be a good neighbour.”
And that’s what this years choice is: Calamintha nepeta subspecies nepeta is a good neighbour. (And by the way, what’s with its name? It’s as if the species felt unrepresented so had to repeat himself…)
”Uh hum. I don’t want to bother anyone but in case you missed it the first time, it’s nepeta.”
Yes. We heard you. If you think you’ve seen this plant before, well, maybe you have, because it is not entirely ‘new’. Or maybe you’re thinking of another plant that is a much more colourful relative.
You see, Nepeta was our now beloved Perennial Plant of the Year from 2007, that is Nepeta faassenii ‘Walker’s Low’. Not really low, as the flowering stems on this very floriferous violet bloomer can reach 2-3’ tall, but they do fall over when they’re heavily laden - which is essentially all summer long - so 24” is realistically their mature height.
This colourful catmint is also a vigorous self-seeder; something you will have discovered ironically after you have bought half of a dozen plants and discovered at least a dozen more seedlings by the following spring.
It is also hugely attractive to bees and is unpalatable to both rabbits and deer. Its crinkled grey-green leaves indicate that it is drought resistant so is a great choice for gardeners who want to minimize their watering.
But wait a minute. Let’s get back to this year’s plant. Perhaps surprisingly, it is not the same genus, that is Nepeta, as its violet cousin but rather another plant, Calamintha, which is native to the gravelly slopes of Britain and southern Europe.
This plant is showy in a whole different way. It is much more compact than its violet cousin, reaching only about 16” high and wide, but is no less covered in blooms all summer long. An absolute burst of diminutive creamy white flowers attract butterflies, hummingbirds and bees so planting this perennial is extremely satisfying for the environmentally conscious gardener (isn’t that all of us?) and naturalist.
It is an excellent supporting player. It provides a mass of texture and soft colour that plays well with a whole host of other plants: grasses, more colourful ground huggers that are also sun lovers as well as more showy taller perennials — after all, white plays well with every colour. So, it is the perfect plant to use as the thread to tie disparate border plants together. So don’t buy just one; use it repeatedly to take the eye along a garden edge or path.
Piet Oudolf, perhaps the most well-known public garden designer of our generation, has used Calamintha in many of his designs. In particular, the Lurie Garden in downtown Chicago has incorporated it amongst so many other wildlife friendly perennials. It is a five acre urban botanical park and demonstrates what a naturalistic and wild-looking planting can provide in the way of respite and beauty for stressed city-dwellers. The Garden’s website describes the garden thus:
“Summer and fall teem with the flutter of butterflies and birds. Winter’s seed heads and ornamental grasses capture snow and ice, creating graceful art forms. Lurie Garden is living art – a palette of texture and color blending Chicago’s unique culture, ecology, history and people.”
But what about the funny name? The use of the ‘subspecies’ is the European plant taxonomists version of ‘variety’, the latter of which is favoured by their North American associates.
Accordingly, here is an explanation:
“In practice, subspecies typically ties a plant to a specific geographic location while variety refers to a unique plant found throughout the plant’s entire range. In the case of C. nepeta subsp.nepeta, this subspecies is tied to a specific plant in a specific location with more vigorous growth habits, larger flowers, larger inflorescence, and larger leaves.”
This means that this subspecies or variety of calamint is naturally occurring and was not created by plant breeders, like so many other Perennial Plants of the Year. Hopefully this is a move toward appreciating and embracing more plants like this, that may not be splashy but nevertheless have an important place in our garden spaces.
So, when you see this perennial on the garden centre shelves this spring, it won’t look like much but be sure to reach for it. It will be one of the easiest perennials you’ll grow, with keep pollinators happy, and will provide a visual respite and excellent foil for showier plants.