When I hear the word “mint,” my mind immediately thinks flavor. But when we’re talking plants, the Lamiaceae or mint family is not simply a one-note herb. It encompasses 236 genera and more than 7,000 species, some of which are also edible or medicinal. One of these mint family relatives was introduced to me via a Native Plant of the Month Club: a perennial basil. This new garden addition is native throughout 33 states, as well as from Manitoba to Nova Scotia, which includes my province of Ontario. In this article, I’m going to share growing tips for perennial basil plants, as well as a few other perennial members of the mint family. Some may surprise you!
When you hone in on the growing characteristics of some of these plants, “mint family” makes sense because of the herb’s tendency to spread. If you’ve planted mint in a garden, you know exactly what I mean. You’ve probably been pulling it out every year since! My mint (spearmint, mojito, etc.) is always dug into pots. Some of the other plants listed here, like oregano, lemon balm, lamium, and creeping Charlie, can also be aggressive spreaders.
Also, if you look closely at some of these plants, the family resemblance may reveal itself. Visual similarities include square stems, paired leaves, and what Encyclopedia Britannica describes as “two-lipped open-mouthed tubular flowers.” The blooms on many of these selections, including sage, lemon balm, and perennial basil, are all a mauve hue with those aforementioned features.
Let’s start with the plant that prompted me to write this piece: Perennial basil. It is also referred to as wild basil (Clinopodium Vulgare). Plants enjoy partial shade to full sun, sandy to loamy soil, and can grow to be about two feet (30 cm) high. I feel a bit bad for mine because I planted it in a hot and sunny side yard garden that has poor soil (that I’m working to amend) and bindweed. It doesn’t seem to mind, however, as it survived the winter and produced lots of healthy leaves and flowers in its first full summer in the garden. And it doesn’t taste at all like the basil you grow in your veggie garden. I tasted a leaf in the name of research and it didn’t taste much like anything, to be honest.
Another native plant addition, this one to my front yard garden, wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) aka beebalm produces these awesome, scraggly blooms that remind me of Muppets or Fraggles (or any puppet Jim Henson has come up with). The plant thrives in full sun to part shade. It’s another popular herbal tea choice, and also popular with pollinators.
I have to say, lavender’s mint family affiliation surprised me. Sure you could make a case for the flowers being similar-ish to others, but the whole plant has such a different, unique look to the rest of the plants I’ve mentioned here. This perennial prefers hot, Mediterranean-like weather, just like its annual herb rosemary cousin. That means full sun and well-draining soil. There are varieties of English lavender that are hardy down to USDA zones 4 and 5. Spanish lavenders, however, prefer tropical climates. They are treated as annuals up until about zone 7 or 8. In my containers, they do not like those first few frosts.
The name of this perennial is a bit of a giveaway. I have catmint (Nepeta) growing in my front yard garden, and while the flowers remind me a bit of lavender, I like it’s more wispy, soft foliage. I have several plants and they’re always covered in bees. While the plant does spread over time, I haven’t found it to be unmanageable. Catmint is hardy down to zone 3 or 4, and loves full sun.
I always admire the dead nettle plant (Lamium) growing in my sister’s front foundation garden, because you can usually find blooms on it right up until December—longer if it doesn’t snow. The foliage looks very similar to lemon balm, though most leaves I’ve seen have some variegation. This hardy plant is drought and heat tolerant. Plant it in full sun to full shade.
I must note right away here that I’m not recommending one grow ground ivy. This is a legit creeper and is considered invasive. It’s the black sheep of the mint family. One that found its way into the lawn in my backyard and took up permanent residence. While I don’t spray my lawn, ground ivy, aka creeping Charlie, is one of those weeds lawncare companies advertise to eliminate.
In writing this article, I inadvertently discovered another mint family member growing in my lawn. Because I was reading about the flower commonalities, I recognized those tell-tale signs and used the Seek by iNaturalist app to identify heal-all (Prunella vulgaris). It is known for its medicinal properties and thus also referred to as common self-heal and woundwort.
I have a raised bed where I’ve allowed certain perennial herbs to take over, including mint family members lemon balm, oregano, and sage. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) is a part of my favorite tea blend (alongside chamomile and lavender), so I dry this fragrant herb and store it in glass jars. Hardy down to about USDA zone 4, plant it in sun to part shade (it thrives in my part shade raised bed).
An essential part of my spice rack, oregano is a bit of a bully in the garden, but I don’t mind because I dry lots of this savory herb. It loves full sun, but has grown very well in my partly shaded raised bed. This article by Jessica features oregano harvesting and storage tips.
For some reason, I tend to use sage (Salvia officinalis) mainly around the holidays. I’ve dashed outside in the winter to snip fresh leaves (sometimes it requires dusting away snow cover) for my turkey stuffing or sage potato recipe. But this herb is also very ornamental when it flowers, and the leaves are an interesting texture. Plant sage in full sun. However, mine doesn’t mind the part sun it gets in my raised bed.
Thyme is one of those perennial herbs that works well as a border plant. I have lemon thyme planted in my front yard garden, along rock edging. I enjoy the taste that it adds (fresh or dried) to fish, sauces, and other recipes. This is another heat lover that will thrive in the sun and well-draining soil.
Annual members of the mint family
- Tips for healthy basil plants
- Starting bells of Ireland from seed
- Planting Mexican bush sage
- Growing rosemary in gardens and containers