Like the rose family of apples and pears, strawberries and cherries, legumes and mints also define much of the world’s cuisine. Legumes
provide beans and peas, the staples of a human diet around the world. Mints provide the flavorings. They include the aromatic herbs of thyme, lavender, basil, rosemary, oregano and peppermint. These gifts alone make them esteemed plant families. But they offer more.
The mop top of native bee balm (Monarda fistulosa) is a garden favorite from the mint family and an excellent choice for hummingbirds as well as bees and butterflies. Square stems indicate a unique characteristic of mints and most mints offer a pungent aroma.
With their hairy leaves and blue-green color, they’ve adapted to our arid landscape. We take them for granted and consider them monotonous. But they offer year-round beauty because many mints are evergreens. For some animals they provide food; for others, cover. Tough, resilient, adaptable and subtle, mints suit our home landscaping.
They’re excellent choices for drought-tolerant gardens, often forming the backbone for xeric plantings. An added benefit is that many mints attract pollinators. The wide varieties of Salvia and Agastache provide tough perennials with long lasting blooms. And skullcap, a common native perennial with bluish-purple velvety blooms, deserves more attention in ornamental gardens.
If you’d like to mix native plants with non-natives, mints provide compatible garden companions. Thymes and lavenders require identical conditions to many native mints. Because our non-native mints are often from the Mediterranean, they prefer lean soil and little water once established. A few mints from the southern Mediterranean climes won’t winter over in our low temperatures, but others will. The culinary variety of rosemary can’t take our winters, but the culinary cultivars of thyme, Greek oregano and sage will. The same is true with lavenders. You have to choose those that grow well in climates like our own. A few mints, like peppermint, may be invasive in a garden with regular watering but behave in a garden that’s drier.
Besides the vast range of salvias and agastaches, mints include teucrium and catnip, horehound and pennyroyal—some are invasive thugs so it pays to be choosy in your own garden.
Mints can’t be beat for aroma, but legumes, in a peculiar evolutionary adaptation, possess roots with nodules that manufacture nitrogen. Legumes have a leg up if they can manufacture their own fertilizer. Alfalfa, a famous livestock legume, often grows as an unwanted weed that has escaped cultivation. But in agriculture, alfalfa not only provides a high-nutrient food for livestock, it manufactures so much nitrogen in its own nodules that the plant can be used as fertilizer for other plants. Check the ingredients of most organic fertilizers and alfalfa may be at the top of the list. Some botanists believe that this astonishing characteristic of legumes not only feeds itself, but also creates a rich soil that inhibits other plants, which have adapted to less nitrogen.
Native legumes also come armed with another weapon for survival. Many take chemicals into their roots and leaves that are poisonous to browsers. Locoweed is one example. Legumes are not the only plants that manufacture poisons: Stanleya pinnata, or prince’s plume is one. It’s a tall yellow spike in the Cruciferae family that draws selenium from the soil, making it deadly to livestock. You’ll find it in the Comanche Grasslands.
But legumes, which come with their own capacity to take nitrogen from the air and make it useable, are unique. That’s why native beans grow so well in dry, lean gardens where few other vegetables could thrive. And many vegetable gardeners will plant a legume crop ahead of vegetables that crave nitrogen for adequate growth. Beans companion with corn, a notorious nitrogen guzzler and help supply the corn with what it needs. That’s the idea behind vegetable gardeners planting cover crops to enrich their plots. A seeding of clovers or vetches sown in autumn survives the winter, supplying nitrogen to the soil. So if you plant clovers, including many native clovers and vetches, you’ll be enriching your garden soil with nitrogen. Come spring, you may not require any other fertilizer to get a vegetable garden started.
A few striking legume natives are the lead plant, lupine, prairie-clover and golden banner. Lead plant and prairie-clover can be found in the horticultural trade recommended for prairie gardens. Among the native varieties of golden banner, Thermopsis montana usually is recommended for the Western Slope, Thermopsis divaricarp for the foothills and mountains, Thermopsis rhombifolia for the plains. Our native common lupine, Lupinus argenteus adapts widely to our soils and altitudes. Mints and legumes are among the popular and tough garden plants. Many are drought-tolerant; several are cooking herbs. Others beckon to a variety of pollinators and produce food for us, too.
A Selection of Legumes and Mints for home gardens
|natives and non-natives||sunset hyssop||Agastache rupestris|
|Texas hummingbird mint||Agastache cana|
|giant flowered purple salvia||Salvia pachyphylla|
|culinary sage||Salvia officinalis|
|blue sage||Salvia azurea|
|West Texas grass sage||Salvia reptans|
|Many kinds of thymes are used as ground covers but Thymus officinalis is the culinary thyme.||Thymus spp.|
|English lavender||Lavandula angustifolia|
|Provence French lavender||Lavandula x intermedia|
|French hybrid lavender||Lavandula x intermedia ‘Grosso’|
|White-flowering French lavender||Lavandula x intermedia ‘Alba’|
|Pink bergamot||Monarda fistulosa|
|Blue sage||Salvia azurea|
|Giant hyssop||Agastache foeniculum|