If you were to imagine an ideal perennial, would it have dense spikes of tubular flowers that bloom from June to frost and don't require deadheading? Would it perform in the heat of summer and even tolerate drought? And would it attract hummingbirds, butterflies, bees and other insects into the garden?
Let me introduce a star of the summer perennial border -- Agastache -- a group of plants in the mint family, most of which are native to North America. They all have lovely scented foliage. Most are upright plants with sturdy stems that rarely need staking. Agastache varieties are rarely bothered by pests or diseases, with the exception of powdery mildew during hot, humid weather if air circulation around plants is poor.
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They are known for their long-lasting spikes of flowers in a large cast of colors including pink, mauve, blue, purple, orange and more. Although it's commonly called hummingbird mint because hummingbirds love it, butterflies, bees and other insects also enjoy the nectar-rich flowers. Reportedly, hummingbirds prefer plants with red, pink and orange flowers; butterflies fancy types with blue flowers. The hummingbirds and butterflies in my gardens don't seem to be as discerning.
Hummingbird mints perform without special care. Plant them in lean, well-drained soil in full sun or light shade. Like all performers, Agastache only craves your admiration (and maybe a little applause from time to time). In the garden, taller varieties can be kept shorter by pinching plants back in spring before flower buds are formed.
Agastache is an appropriate choice for container gardens, too. Their flowers that bloom without pause all summer contribute just as much color as any annual; and their gray-green foliage provides contrast and texture to neighboring plants. And, after they've completed their summer performance, plant them in the garden where they will deliver a second act the following year.
Beautiful new varieties claim hardiness in our northern Illinois gardens, but until they've proven their durability, give them the best chance of overwintering by not cutting them back in the fall. Their leaves and stems give them a little extra protection. Wait until April to cut back dead stems to a few inches above the ground. Or plant them on the south or west side of your home.
Named for its fruity scented foliage, Tutti-frutti boasts show stopping rosy pink flowers on slender stems up to 24 inches tall. Bolero sports 18-inch wands teeming with bright rose-purple flowers over leaves brushed with bronze. Add some sizzle to the perennial border with Tango. Its bright orange-red flowers dance on sturdy stems up to 16 inches tall. Consider buying a pair of this variety. After all, it takes two to tango.
Kudos Mandarin shows off bright orange flower wands; Kudos Ambrosia displays soft orange and rose blossoms. Both varieties grow up to 18 inches tall and wide.
Black Adder and Purple Haze are taller types perfect for the middle of the perennial border. Each grows up to 36 inches tall and 24 inches wide. Black Adder flaunts tall wands of smoky blue flowers. Purple Haze parades its vibrant violet purple flowers on stately stems.
Agastache are perfectly suited to the herb garden. While you are clipping some herbs for dinner, snip some leaves of the hummingbird mint to make tea.
Hummingbird mints are congenial cast members in the perennial border. Yarrow, salvia, phlox, helianthus, geraniums, catmint, and asters are all lovely companions. Any perennials with gray foliage like Artemesia Powis Castle and lamb's ears and are also friendly cohorts.
In containers, combine Agastache with purple fountain grass, coleus, dusty miller, and other annuals blooming in coordinating colors to your Agastache blossoms. Use licorice plant and Blackie sweet potato vine to trail over the container's edges.
• Diana Stoll is a horticulturist and the garden center manager at The Planter's Palette, 28W571 Roosevelt Road, Winfield. Call (630) 293-1040, ext. 2, or visit planterspalette.com.