Agastache - The Pollinators’ Delight
One of the rewarding parts of working on the landscape crew at Catskill Native Nursery is seeing immediate results. Often clients would bring us in specifically because they wanted to make their homes more welcoming – and for the most part, this means more palatable – to wildlife; and often the first butterflies and bees would show up as we were leaving the job, which was pretty impressive. In part this depends on having a certain number of secret weapons – plants that are absolutely irresistible to pollinators. One of those “secret weapon” plants is Agastache foeniculum (the ‘ch’ like all Greek chi’s is hard, and it’s pronounced a-ga-STA-key), or Anise Hyssop.
The USDA website lists agastache as native to Canada and the U.S. north of the Mason-Dixon line, though I’ll confess the only place I’ve ever seen it growing wild is in West Virginia, where it may have been a garden escape. It has been in cultivation for a long time. It is a mint, and its leaves are tasty as breath fresheners, provide a neat and unexpected anise flavor in salads, and make a fine tea. The flower heads are edible too, and their flavor is great though they are a bit gritty. Bees make a fine honey from the plant as well, and so in general it is one of those plants that is just as useful to the homesteader as to the ornamental gardener.
It is perfectly well adapted to this area and I find I never have to water my plants or provide any particular care for them. I use them not only in garden beds but also in planters and pots, where their purple flowers provide a superb contrast to yellows or oranges or reds for the entire second half of the summer (even without deadheading). I don’t have any running water, so my planters and pots are on their own for the most part, and agastache is one of those plants that keeps on blooming right through drought. Most importantly for our area, the deer do not like it. A happy agastache in fertile soil will generally be three feet tall and occasionally a bit more; but this year I had a stand of them that were browsed by deer (once, in spring). They bloomed beautifully, but topped out at two feet instead of three. The deer have had ample opportunity to browse them since but have left them alone.
I love upright spikes of purple and blue, so I am partial to the agastache to begin with, but even more amazing to me is the fact that from July through September, the blooms of a well-grown agastache will crawl with bees and butterflies. The feast begins in the morning and continues past nightfall, as I find my agastaches also summon nocturnal moths to the banquet. It always amazes me to see so many different species of insect buzzing from bloom to bloom without any kind of jealousy or competition. Even the grasshoppers like them, and the leaves often have a hole or two in them, a sign that something out there likes the leaves too, though never so as to disfigure the plant. Bees will continue to work on the plant even in the rain, and as for butterflies, it’s the only plant I know of that can really compete with the pretty and invasive Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii), which is a pretty and deer-resistant plant which is now illegal to sell in several U.S. states because it is becoming a noxious weed. (It used to be said that this would not happen in the Catskills, because the seedlings were not cold-hardy, but I know a Catskill owner who has them seeding in everywhere, and they are also all over the Alps, so I imagine they are quite cold-hardy enough). The Butterfly Bush really does attract butterflies like no other plant – with the one exception, I would say, of the agastache. I have some agastaches growing in front of a Joe-pye weed (Eupatoriadelphus maculatus), which is a great combination: the bees and small butterflies favor the agastache, the large butterflies favor the Joe-pye weed. Toss in some liatris and some echinacea – which are not the most deer-resistant and might do better here with a fence – and you will have pretty much the prettiest, easiest native-plant pollinator garden you can imagine. They all bloom in late July and August around here, and their colors all go with each other.
Even the most perfect lover will have some quality that bugs the heck out of you, and so with the agastache: the agastache has a bad habit of fertility. They don’t spread by runners like other mints, thank God, but an agastache seed is a future plant, no two ways about it. If there is any bare soil in the vicinity of your agastache, it will seed into it. The plants can be deadheaded, but the spent flower heads are themselves colorful and pretty, so you never feel any impetus to cut them off. A Denning gardener friend of mine who keeps a tighter rein on her garden than I do – I’m the kind of person who gets three haircuts a year, I don’t mind rough edges – pulled up her agastache years ago and said “I’m still pulling up seedlings!” William Cullina in his fabulous guide to North American wildflowers says “a garden can be easily overrun with the progeny from just one anise hyssop gone to seed.” I have to admit I kind of like this quality – I like to see my plants happy and reproducing. I think it makes me feel like I’m a good gardener. That said, my agastaches have yet to seed into my meadow, which I would not mind in the least, and the seeds are heavy and the seedlings are all found within three feet of the original plant. They can’t outcompete established plants in a dense planting either. And if they do seed in, you’ll have some to give to your friends, or you can make tea from the seedlings. It’s really not the worst situation to have. In general, this is one of the best Denning plants around: good for the bees and butterflies, tasty, deer resistant, pretty, blooms for three full summer months. Not bad, all in all. And if you want some seedlings, it seems I always have extras. :)