David Salman, High Country Gardens chief horticulturist and Agastache flowersDavid Salman, High Country Gardens chief horticulturist and Agastache flowers

Agastache Introductions: Superstars of the Perennial World

 

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, 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. Learn more about the story of how this amazing plant has made its mark on the world of horticulture. 

The Beginnings Of A Superstar

I first became familiar with Agastache in the early 1990’s when I planted Agastache cana (Texas Hummingbird Mint). At that time they were an obscure and infrequently grown genus of perennials. But, by the end of the growing season, I was smitten. The unique beauty of the flowers, the wonderful sweet herbal scent of the plant’s foliage, and its incredible popularity with the hummingbirds in my garden had convinced me that these plants deserved more attention.

My introduction of Agastache rupestris (Licorice Mint Hyssop) through the High Country Gardens catalog in 1996 was a milestone that caught the attention of gardeners, nurseries, and plant breeders across the country. This rare species from southwestern New Mexico and southeastern Arizona, only known to a few botanists at the time, was selected as a Plant Select® winner in 1997, and became instantly popular.

Its appeal has continued over the years and it’s now grown internationally in Europe and across North America. The popularity of Agastache rupestris eventually caught the attention of professional plant breeders, and over the past 10 to 15 years, there have been many new Agastache hybrids and seed-grown cultivars introduced to gardeners on both sides of the Atlantic.

Growing With Southwestern Native Seeds

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 Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas 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

Agastache rupestris (Licorice Mint Hyssop)Agastache rupestris (Licorice Mint Hyssop)
Agastache rupestris (Licorice Mint Hyssop) Photo by Pam Koch.

Agastache Introductions

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.

Over the many years of working with Agastache, I have introduced the following species and hybrids through High Country Gardens:

Agastache AvaAgastache Ava
Agastache 'Ava'

Agastache 'Ava'

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. The original plant is still growing in my garden! (Fun fact: 'Ava' is named for David Salman's wife.

Agastache cana 'Rosita'Agastache cana 'Rosita'
Agastache cana 'Rosita'

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 Acana 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'Agastache 'Desert Sunrise'
Agastache 'Desert Sunrise'

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 SageSilver Ironweed, and Blue Mist Spirea.

Agastache 'Glowing Embers'Agastache 'Glowing Embers'
Agastache 'Glowing Embers'

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'Agastache 'Fall Fiesta'
Agastache 'Fall Fiesta'

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.

Agastache 'Arizona Snow'Agastache 'Arizona Snow'
Agastache 'Arizona Snow'

Agastache 'Arizona Snow'

FlowerKisser® Arizona Snow Agastache (Agastache urticifolia 'Alba') is an unusual pure white-flowered form of mountain hyssop, selected for its exceptional cold hardiness and nectar-rich flowers. This native mountain hyssop comes from the high plateaus and mountains of east-central Arizona, where it grows in meadows and along road cuts. It likes to be grown in cool summer climates, and is not suitable for planting in hot or muggy climates. With its very upright growing habit, Arizona Snow contrasts nicely with perennials that have a more rounded habit and complementary colors.

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