Growing the Wild Mints for Wildlife

The mint family of wildflowers, which includes a range of wild herbs which abound in our countryside, is one that is very valuable to our native wildlife. Many of these herbs have been used in the past (and increasingly in the present) for medicinal purposes, but for the wildlife gardener their major contribution is their ability to attract insects to their pollen and nectar.  And it is no coincidence that the vast majority of these sweet smelling, useful plants fall in to the Labiate family - plants characterised by their scented leaves, spikes of hooded flowers in whorls up the stems and copious production of nectar.

There are many species of mint in our countryside, but the plant most often encountered is the fragrant water mint (Mentha aquatica).  What a pleasure it is to walk alongside a tumbling stream in the countryside and to have ones senses assaulted by the pungent smell of mint!  This is an easy plant to grow on the edge of a garden pond or a bog garden if you don’t mind the fact that this, and all of its cousins, has a well-known habit of spreading like wildfire.  Water mint, however can easily be grown in a small watertight container – I have it in a half barrel, alongside brooklime (Veronica beccabunga) and lesser spearwort (Ranunculus flammula). These wildflowers are submerged in their individual pots towards the back of the barrel, so it can still be used for filling a small watering can for the plants in containers round about.  Water mint can be used to flavour new peas or potatoes, but it has a milder taste than most cultivated mints.  Apple mint (Mentha rotundifolia) is perhaps the tastiest of the native mints, but many other familiar species including spearmint (Mentha spicata) and horse mint (Mentha longifolia) are not true natives but escapees from gardens which have become naturalised.  As far as native wildlife is concerned the mints are insect magnets, irrespective of their origins.  Bees, butterflies and hoverflies all visit them for nectar and pollen and once they have gone to seed, goldfinches in particular will take the seeds.

Many members of the Labiate family are grown in gardens and marjoram is familiar to most gardeners.  Known in the culinary sense as oregano, and an important component of Mediterranean cooking, marjoram occurs throughout Europe and there are many useful wild species.  Our native plant (Origanum vulgare) has a less pungent taste than some of the southern European species, but is useful none the less in our kitchens and our gardens.  It is one of the best butterfly attractants for a sunny spot and can be grown in a container on a patio if you are short of space.  The well known golden variety has yellow leaves and is more compact, making it suitable even for a window box and Hopleys variety, a garden centre favourite, has denser clumps of darker pink flowers.  All marjorams attract bees and butterflies, especially the smaller species of butterfly such as the gatekeeper, common blue and brown argus, as well as the more usual small tortoiseshell.

Thyme is another duel purpose wildflower, worth is weight in gold in the herb garden and kitchen and incredibly attractive to wildlife.  There are several garden-worthy wild thymes but the majority of our native species do require a free draining soil.  Sheltered spots between paving stones, on rockeries or scree slopes, or along the edges of gravel paths, the wild creeping thyme, Thymus praecox subsp. brittanicus, will make itself at home.  It could also be used to clothe a ‘living roof’ on a garden shed or outbuilding as long as there is adequate drainage.  Here its dark pink fragrant flowers, covered with insects, could be enjoyed at head height.  Its ability to attract bees is legendary and thyme honey is a real treat.  Small tortoiseshell butterflies and honeybees love all the wild thymes including the less common Breckland thyme Thymus serpyllum and the large thyme Thymus pulegiodes.

Another labiate with a herbal name is the wild basil Clinopodium vulgare.  Sadly this has no basil scent at all but is still a pretty plant for a hot spot in the garden or for light shade beneath a hedge where the soil is dry.  It attracts bumblebees and solitary bees to its whorls of spicy scented pink flowers.  Lesser calamint, Calamintha nepeta, also enjoys a dry spot and has delicate mauve flowers which some butterflies will visit.  This species makes a small bushy plant and looks wonderful at the front of a cottage border.  Basil thyme (Acinos arvensis) again has no true basil aroma but its small stems, covered with tiny bright purple flowers, will creep gently and cover dry soil.

Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris) is a wildflower that many of us know from our lawns, especially the ‘neglected’ ones.  Like most of the others mentioned self-heal is a perennial and this particular species happily survives in closely mown grass, but we generally only notice it after returning from a holiday!  If a lawn is left unmown for a couple of weeks, self-heal’s dense purple flowers may well appear.  It is an excellent plant for a meadow or if you are lucky enough to have it already in a lawn, try mowing less often or leave small patches unmown, in order to appreciate its beauty.  The flowers, often overlooked, really are quite lovely when viewed at close quarters and attract some of the smaller butterfly species.

We have really only scratched the surface of the Labiate family – meadow clary, downy woundwort, gipsywort, wild catmint, motherwort, white horehound – the list of useful and attractive garden plants goes on and on.  And each one has a wealth of native insects that depend upon it for nectar and pollen, or as a larval food plant.  The ease with which they grow is an advantage to the novice wildflower gardener, and they are generally quite easy to germinate from seed.  This is a useful attribute as not many are available as nursery grown plants.  Seed can be sown this month in a peat-free compost and the pots or trays left outside to germinate next spring.  Seedlings can be pricked out into small pots or plugs and the young plants put out when the soil is not too dry.  They are generally pretty pest free too, so in all trouble free and great for wildlife.

Growing wildflowers in our gardens can be an incredibly positive thing to do for our local wildlife.  Insects of all types will benefit from the provision of the plants that supply the majority of their food, whether that be leaves, roots, seeds, nectar or pollen.  An increase in the numbers of insects and other invertebrates in your garden will automatically increase the number of birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles too, as many of these will be dependant on the invertebrates for their food.  The whole web of life in your garden hinges on what you grow and you can influence that garden food chain by growing some native wildflowers amongst the dahlias and delphiniums.  Sow some seeds now and increase your garden wildlife significantly!


© Text and photographs Jenny Steel 2017