by David Salman, High Country Gardens Chief Horticulturalist
Growing plants of the genus Agastache (pronounced A gas' ta kee or A gas tack' e), commonly known as hummingbird mint or hyssop, has been an obsession of mine for over 25 years and counting. They have everything I love in a perennial: aromatic flowers and foliage, stunning spikes of tubular flowers that attract hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies, and they bloom in summer and fall, extending the seasons of color in my xeriscapes, and with the exception of one species (Agastache rugosum) they are North American native plants.
The Hummingbirds Mints are the superstars of my gardens. In full bloom, they are magnificent! Aglow in shades of pink, orange and lavender, and blue, these plants are like peacocks, over the top in extravagant colors. The hummingbirds are plentiful too. From dawn to dusk, they're busy sipping the Agastache flowers, thriving on the abundance of their nectar. In summer, these hyperactive little birds give my xeriscapes a frenetic energy not seen or felt at other times of the year.
A Brief History of Cultivating Agastache
At the beginning of my work with these stunning wildflowers, there was Sally Walker, owner of Southwestern Native Seeds. Based in Tucson, AZ she was very focused at that time on collecting seeds of the various Agastache species, many of them rare and not being grown in cultivation.
They are scattered across the vast territories of New Mexico, Arizona, and northern Mexico, which Sally and husband trekked across in a VW bus. My seed purchases from her company provided me with all of the best plants in the genus. And it was from these seed collections in the early 1990s, that I introduced new species and garden hybrids.
Thank goodness that the wild collected seeds of all these incredible species appeared when I was ready to explore these fascinating plants. This would not be possible now. Many species native to northern Mexico are no longer accessible. Drug cartel control over much of the northern part of that country makes it impossibly dangerous to trek deep into rural hills and mountains in search of seed. Populations of species found north of the border in AZ, NM and TX are more accessible but very difficult to find. Years of climate change intensified drought and habitat degradation from grazing have greatly reduced wild populations.
Learn More about Sally Walker: Plant Explorer
Through High Country Gardens, I have introduced several new Agastache to cultivate in the US, including a new species, Agastache rupestris (in 1996) and hybrids, such as 'Desert Sunrise' ®(2000) and 'Ava' (2005). My fascination with the genus is undiminished and my efforts to breed and select more cultivars and hybrids are continuing. I like to think that through my many years of growing these plants, I have gained insights and knowledge of the genus that help me to find the best species for future hybridizing and recognizing really great new plants when they appear in my test beds.
David Salman's Agastache Introductions
Over the many years of working with Agastache, I have introduced the following species and hybrids through High Country Gardens:
My best hybrid introduced through High Country Gardens in 2004. If this cultivar is a good fit for your growing conditions, it will be one of your showiest perennials. A native hybrid between Agastache cana and Agastache barbari, 'Ava' was a cutting propagated from a single seedling that appeared in one of my xeriscapes more than 10 years ago. A tall, robust plant, 'Ava' inherited her height from A. barbari, a very tall species from northern Mexico. Her flowers are rose-pink that push out of raspberry-pink calyxes (the papery sheaths that hold the flowers). Blooming for 2 to 3 months, 'Ava' is unique among the Agastache because the calyxes hold their color even after the flowering is finished. This extends the season of color for the plant until knocked back by hard frost. 'Ava's only fault is that her stems can be brittle; use a peony cage or construct an enclosure with 3 or 4 bamboo stakes and some twine to protect the stems from breaking in harsh weather. When happy, this can be a very long lived perennial. ('Ava' is named for David Salman's wife, Ava.) The original plant is still growing in my garden!
Agastache cana 'Rosita'
A rose-pink native beauty I discovered growing among a group of our Agastache cana plants grown from habitat collected seed. 'Rosita' stood out from the others because of its compact stature (only about 2/3rds as tall as the usual A. cana plant) and its profusion of flowers tightly packed into the flowering spikes. 'Rosita' has roughly 50% more individual flowers per spike than is typical for the species. Grown from cuttings collected from that one original plant,'Rosita' is especially useful in smaller spaces and makes a superb companion for just about any other summer/early fall blooming perennials (such as Echinacea 'Rocky Top Hybrid', Lavender 'Buena Vista' and Hymenoxys) that enjoy full, hot sun and a lean, well drained loam or sandy-loam soil.
Agastache Desert Sunrise
This was my first hybrid Hummingbird Mint released by High Country Gardens in 2000. A garden cross between two of the best and most growable species, Agastache cana and Agastache rupestris, Desert Sunrise is a big, vigorous grower sometimes topping out at nearly four feet in height. It's also interesting to note that this vigorous hybrid has enhanced nectar production, more copious than either of the parent plants, and is a favorite of the hummingbirds. Its larger size and robust growth habit make it a great companion plant for Blue Spire Russian Sage, Silver Ironweed, and Blue Mist Spirea.
Agastache rupestris Glowing Embers®
When first starting out growing Agastache, I had been growing Agastache cana (Texas Hummingbird Mint), a rare native from West Texas and Southwestern New Mexico and come to greatly appreciate both the beautiful and strongly aromatic flowers and foliage and the plant's attractiveness to hummingbirds. So it was with great anticipation that I sowed seeds of Agastache rupestris. It didn't disappoint! Once it had grown it to flowering size in my Santa Fe garden, I realized that this incredible, but horticulturally unknown species had great potential. We immediately began to produce larger quantities of seed so it could be offered through the High Country Gardens catalog, which happened in spring 1996.
In the meantime, as I continued to acquire seed and plants of other native Agastache species, I purchased a small quantity of Agastache rupestris seed collected from a different location along the western border of New Mexico in Grant County. When the plants from this New Mexico location bloomed, I immediately realized that they had much darker orange flowers than the Arizona population that I started with. I selected several plants with the darkest flowers for use as stock plants and, after harvesting seed from these glowing orange beauties, gave this selection the name Glowing Embers®. And after many years of enjoyment at home, I decided it was time to get this incredible perennial into production and onto the High Country Gardens website!
Agastache 'Fall Fiesta'
A native hybrid discovered in my Santa Fe home garden. This huge plant has orange and pink flowers held by showy rose-pink calyxes that hold their dark color after flowering has finished. The large flower spikes will reach 4 to 4 ½ feet in height and the dark green foliage has a slightly sweet, minty scent. Judging by its appearance and the scent of the foliage, I believe that 'Fall Fiesta' is a cross between 'Ava' (Agastache cana x Agastache barberi) and Glowing Embers® (a selection of Agastache rupestris). Being a hybrid, the nectar content of the flowers is very high and the hummingbirds go crazy for it. Of all the Agastache I've gardened with, 'Fall Fiesta' stays in flower later into the fall than any other Agastache I've grown; thus the origin of the name. This is an invaluable trait that prolongs late season color and keeps the hummingbirds and other pollinators when their other nectar sources are done blooming.