A Gardening Journal

The Best Season Ever: White-flowered Chinese Mint Shrub

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Chinese mint bush flowers just as Summer turns to Fall. but I avoided it  for years because I knew of only the lavender-flowered form. Then I was given the white version: Well-behaved-but-boring was now well-behaved-and-essential.

 

The narrow spikes of tiny white florets can be six to eight inches tall. Spikes of dwarf "White Ball" buddleja (conveniently nearby for comparison) look blunt-ended. Further, unless I were to dead-head the buddleja daily, the brown carcasses of expired spikes dirty up that bush's display. The white spikes of Elsholtzia stauntonii 'Alba' emerge in one rush. Yes, you need to wait until the very end of Summer, but then the display is pristine.

 

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The tiny florets are fuzzy with short hairs; the forked pistils bring added featheriness.

 

Elsholtzia-stauntonii-Alba-closer-cropped-100613-640

 

Elsholtzia is only just established in my garden: I was given a single pot of it in early Summer, which I planted and promptly forgot about. The early Fall flowers were a brilliant reminder of what an appealing plant this is. I'm on the look-out for where to employ this species more extensively, in a site whose prominence does it justice. Stay tuned.

 

Here's how to grow this sun-loving and exceptionally self-reliant species:

 

Latin Name

Elsholtzia stauntonii 'Alba'

Common Name

White-flowered Chinese mint shrub

Family

Lamiaceae, the Mint family.

What kind of plant is it?

Deciduous shrub that is usually grown as an herbaceous perennial. See "How to handle it," below. 

Hardiness

Zones 4 - 8.

Habit

Clumping, with numerous upright stems.

Rate of Growth

Fast.

Size in ten years

Elsholtzia stauntonii 'Alba' is larger when grown as a shrub whose stems are left in place to grow year after year: potentially three to five feet tall and wide. When grown as a perennial, by being cut to the ground (or nearly so) in early Spring, size at the time of flowering is usually less: two to three feet tall and wide.

Texture

Full.

Grown for

its flowers: Slender vertical spikes of small, pure-white florets are a welcome note of freshness and energy in the early Fall garden.

 

its easy-going nature: Just provide sun and any soil with reasonable drainage. No need to stake or pinch, or protect from browsers.

 

its tame habit: Unlike many plants in the mint family, Elsholtzia does not spread by rhizomes.

Flowering season

Latest Summer into Fall: The pictures above were taken from September 22 to October 6.  

Color combinations 

The mid-green foliage and bright, pure-white flowers go with everything.

Plant partners

With its late season of bloom, healthy-looking but not showy foliage all Summer, and its enthusiastic response to being cut back hard in late Winter, Elsholtzia is a prime candidate to site amid plants wth an early-season peak followed by Summer dormancy. Oriental poppies enjoy the full sun and well-draining or even lean soil that help Elsholtzia thrive, as do many Winter- or Spring-flowering bulbs such as species tulips, alliums, and eremerus.

 

Another bulb to consider would be meadow saffron, whose large Spring foliage dies down, letting the leafless display of large flowers be a late-season surprise. If you choose to combine Elsholtzia with Colchicum, provide good drainage, but with soil of normal richness and moisture-retention. Take care to leave enough space so that the bulb's large foliage—often bulkier than you'd expect—doesn't smother emerging Elsholtzia stems.  Better yet, cut the Elsholtzia down just by half, not to the ground.

 

If your garden is large enough to have separate areas for seasonal displays, include Elsholtzia in a Fall planting. It's flexible enough in its soil requirements that it could be grown along with asters and chrysanthemums, all of whom typically need rich soil. 

 

If you use Elsholtzia as a Spring-into-Fall hedge, first off, congratulate yourself for making such an unusual choice. Second, remember that the growth of hedges should be as thick and unimpeded as possible. Be sure, then, to grow Elsholtzia in average to good soil, not lean. Plus, minimize root competition by restricting nearby plants to Winter-flowering bulbs that also prefer well-draining soil. Galanthus is probably the best such bulb, especially if it can be planted on the shady side of the Elsholtzia: It prefers soil that is not warmed by direct sun in Summer. In contrast, Eranthis prefers more moisture year-round, even through the Summer when the bulbs are at their most dormant. Soils that receive full sun are likely to become drier than this bulb requires.

Where to use it in your garden

Although Elsholtzia would never be viewed as a specimen plant, it's a terrific filler, bringing well-behaved growth Spring through Fall, and invigoratingly vertical flower spikes in Fall.

 

Growth is dense and self-supporting, enabling Elsholtzia to be used as an informal Fall-flowering hedge. See "Where to use it in your garden," above, and below, "How to handle it: Another option—or two!"

Culture

Full sun in almost any soil with reasonable drainage. Although a member of the mint family, Elsholtzia does not share mint's fondness for plentiful soil moisture in Summer, or poor drainage in Winter. It tolerates lean soils, too, although overall height will probably be less.

How to handle it

Plant in Spring, watering enough to ensure establishment. In late Winter or early Spring thereafter, cut all stems back to an inch or less; new stems emerge from the stubs of the old stems, as well as directly from the base of the clump. Unless the soil is exceptionally moist in Summer, neither staking nor pinching is needed: Growth is naturally bushy and upright.  

How to handle it: Another option—or two!

To grow Elsholtzia as hedge, plant in Spring, spacing young plants a foot apart or, if you have access to them in quantity, even closer. Site where the entire length of the hedge enjoys uniform conditions, especially even exposure to the sun. Because Elscholtzia is a sun-loving plant, hedges of it have the best chance of attaining uniform fullness and height when sited away from buildings or higher horticulture that could shade just a portion of the hedge, even if only for part of the day. Also provide even exposure to soil moisture, drainage, and soil nutrients. Because flowering is the peak of this species' yearly display, you can't make up for differences in vigor the way you might with a non-flowering hedge, by keeping too-vigorous sections trimmed back while slower portions are catching up. The flowers of plants that receive such in-season pinching would be likely to be delayed or even prevented.

 

As usual with late-season bloomers, wait until late Winter to cut stems down.

Quirks and special cases

None.

Downsides

I can't think of one.

Variants

The flowers of the straight species of Elsholtzia stauntonii are lavender. For my money, they are so boring that they outweigh the species' ease of handling, making the plant unworthy of garden use. If, however, you grow asters (my resident groundhog keeps me from such foolishness), then the species' flowers would harmonize with their typical blue, violet, and white flowers, while also providing a lovely contrast in form.

 

Although there are about forty species of Elsholtzia, none has found its way into ornamental horticulture even to the limited extent of E. stauntonii. E. ciliata is an annual Asian species whose lemon-scented foliage can be used in cooking, as you would the leaves of lemon verbena or lemongrass. In the hot climates it prefers, it is often thought of as little more than a weed. Its pale lavender flowers lack even the modest appeal of those of E. stauntonii.

Availability

On-line and at destination retailers.

Propagation

Elsholtzia stauntonii 'Alba' can be propagated by division in early Spring, and by cuttings.

Native habitat

Elsholtzia stauntonii is native to northern China.

 
 
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