Nepeta — Catmint
The genus Nepeta is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) and is made up of approximately 250 perennial species. Unlike true mints, this square-stemmed, ornamental plant does not spread invasively, but slowly broadens at the base into a manageable clump. A relative of catnip, nepeta is also often favored by felines.
Nepeta is native to a variety of habitats, ranging from Mediterranean regions to Western Asia. It has aromatic, gray-green, soft foliage on thin stems typically with spikes of tubular, two-lipped blue or blue-violet flowers. It thrives, even with neglect, in any well-drained soil in full sun or partial shade. It needs no fertilizer and prefers a lean soil and moderately dry growing conditions, both of which encourage its flowering and scent. It also grows beautifully in containers.
Nepeta is drought tolerant once established, and, like many aromatic, gray foliage plants, is deer resistant and not bothered by other wildlife pests such as rabbits, raccoons, or quail while attracting bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
Individual small tubular flowers are gathered on spikes at stem tips but give the appearance of nearly smothering plants with their prolific numbers. Flowering continues abundantly from early summer to fall as long as individual stems are deadheaded or the entire plant is sheared by half after the first blooms fade about midway through summer. In winter or early spring, cut the entire clump to ground level to make way for new stems.
When plants become crowded, divide after shearing and transplant elsewhere in your garden or give away to friends. Some species self-sow freely if the spent flowers are not removed. Any stray seedlings are easily pulled up.
Most of the catmints sold in Sonoma County are cultivars of Nepeta faassenii or N. racemosa, the latter sometimes labeled N. mussinii. Most selections grow 1½ - 2 ft. tall, but a few, such as ‘Six Hills Giant’ and ‘Walker’s Low’ reach nearly 3 ft., both of which benefit from support to prevent long stems from flopping over.
The lower growing nepetas do well in rock gardens, in containers, or spilling over retaining walls. Place them along borders in perennial beds as edgings to contrast their wispy appearance against taller, sturdier plants and allow their foliage mounds to spill outward fountain-like.
The neutral gray-green foliage and lavender-blue flowers partner easily with most garden plants, especially with other Mediterranean species. A few selections also flower in deeper purple, pink, or white.