The pretty, fragrant lesser calamint flourishes in all three of the enclosed gardens at The Cloisters. Each small shrub bears a host of delicate little flowers from late summer through frost. Above, from left to right: The lipped flowers of calamint are characteristic of members of the Labiatae, or mint, family; cold weather brings out the purplish cast in the flowers; calamint is beautiful even in winter, when the fine stems are bare.
The larger-flowered calamint, known as Calamintha grandiflora, is frequently grown in modern gardens, but the lesser calamint, Calamintha nepeta, is the calamint of the Middle Ages. A modern cultivar of this lesser calamint, named ‘White Cloud,’ grows in Cuxa garden; the unimproved form of this woody herb in the mint family can be found in the medieval gardens. Older sources refer to the medieval medicinal species as Calamintha officinalis. According to the Royal Horticultural Society Index of Plants, our standard reference for taxonomy here at The Cloisters, Calamintha officinalis is no longer considered to be a distinct species but is rather a subspecies designated as C. nepeta ssp. glandulosa.
As the name ‘officinalis’ indicates, the latter was an apothecary’s plant. According to Frank Anderson, both forms of C. nepeta were used interchangeably in medieval medicine to induce perspiration, prevent tremors and chills, cure skin ailments, and ease asthma and hysteria. For more on the traditional medicinal uses of both the lesser calamints, see the online version of A Modern Herbal.
Calamint’s delicious scent is released at the slightest touch, but it is the high sugar content and the composition of sugars in the nectar that make calamint the favorite plant of the bees in our gardens. (For more on bee plants in the Labiatae, see “The Mint Family” (November 13, 2009) on the outstanding blog The Peace Bee Farmer.
The lesser calamint has been used in cooking as well as in medicine; Alan Davidson notes that calamint was used in Roman kitchens for its pungent, minty flavor. (It is sometimes known as “savory mint,” as the taste and aroma of calamint combines that of mint species and their relatives, the culinary savorys (Satureja hortensis and Satureja montana). Although a significant number of recipes identify the herb known in Tuscany as nepitella—traditionally used as a seasoning for roasted porcini mushrooms—as Calamintha nepeta, Davidson’s Italian authorities indicate that this is a case of confusion with a species of marjoram.
Calamint is very easily grown. The clouds of white blossoms and the bright, clean green of the foliage are delightful in the heat of summer, when even to glance at the plant cools me down. The flowers, which attract hosts of bees of many species, persist until frost, although both the color and the scent are affected by the cold weather. The stems provide winter interest.
Anderson, Frank J., ed. “Herbals through 1500,” The Illustrated Bartsch, Vol. 90. New York: Abaris, 1984.
Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Grieve, Maude. A Modern Herbal. 1931. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1971.
Griffiths, Mark. The New Royal Horticultural Society Index of Garden Plants. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 1992.