Lesser Calamint a cross between mint and oregano

October 30, 2013
This useful herb, Lesser Calamint, grows well in full sun in just about any well-drained soil.

In the Tuscany district of Italy there is a saying, “Casa mia, donna mia, pane e aglio, vita mia” that translates as “My home, my woman, bread and garlic, my life.” No surprise that Tuscany includes among its simple pleasures delicious food.  And in Tuscany there is a small herb, Nepitella, whose green leaves have a strong, distinctive flavor that tastes almost like a cross between mint and oregano. This herb goes well with just about anything from roasts to vegetables, but especially with mushrooms. An easy yet divine Tuscan meal is sliced porcini mushrooms quickly sautéed in olive oil with nepitella.

Nepitella is gaining widespread use here in the United States, where it more commonly is known as Lesser Calamint (Calamintha nepeta).This tough, wiry 18-inch-tall plant bursts into a cloud of tiny white and lavender blooms in midsummer and continues right into late fall. The tubular flowers attract butterflies and hummingbirds. The plants are upright and bushy. The square stems and leaves are covered with downy hairs.

You can often find Lesser Calamint or Nepitella perennial plants in garden centers or from specialty growers such as White Flower Farm.  Once it is established, you can easily perform root cuttings.  If you prefer, you can plant seed in early spring.

This useful herb grows well in full sun in just about any well-drained soil. Because of its compact size, it also makes a great potted plant. It is both heat tolerant and drought tolerant and thrives on neglect. Lesser Calamint herb is hardy in USDA zones 5 through 9.  

Once established, Lesser Calamint spreads, but is not invasive. About the only problem you may run into is powdery mildew.

There are several varieties of Lesser Calamint.  Some have flavors closer to basil.  One, the Ozark Lesser Calamint, grows just six inches tall with red blossoms.  All of them work well in an edible decorative garden, also known as a portager.

Lesser Calamint was once grown as a medicinal herb to treat depression and insomnia. Today it is usually just used in cooking or to make an invigorating tea to settle the stomach. Pregnant women might do well to avoid teas or infusions, as it can cause miscarriage.

You can pick the leaves in July before the plant blooms, and carefully air dry the leaves for later use.  After the plants bloom, they will set seed and often self sow in the garden.

Plant some Lesser Calamint or Nepitella, and you will have herbs for mushrooms and mushrooms for meals and meals for love.  Seems those Tuscans are onto something.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.