GARDENING / Strangely familiar: 1 Catmint

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The Independent Culture
IN THE FIRST in a new series about unusual varieties of commonly grown garden plants, we look at catmint. Most people recognise this good-tempered bluey-mauve perennial, described by the Victorian gardener Jane Loudon as 'a hardy herbaceous plant of no beauty which grows in common soil'.

Mrs Loudon may not have admired it much, but today no garden seems complete without catmint. Its only fault for modern gardeners is that cats find it so desirable they tend to roll in it and eat it, often destroying the plant. An 18th-century herbalist, de Tournefort, said its powerful scent was so pleasant to cats that it made them wanton. Graham Stuart Thomas, the doyen of plantsmen, suggests putting a prickly twig or two into the centre of catmint as a deterrent.

Common catmint thrives in dry, sunny places, but there are better versions with bigger and bluer flowers that need no more attention. Nepeta 'Six Hills Giant' is twice the size and with meticulous deadheading will keep going all summer. If snipping off individual blooms is not your gardening style, the whole plant can be cut back in late July or August. This refreshes it and it will then flower on until the summer ends.

Nepeta 'Souvenir d'Andre Chaudron' is a jumbo-sized version of catmint with flowers big enough to have a distinct shape. The ordinary catmint Nepeta x faassenii and even Six Hills Giant have little bunches of upward-facing flowers so that the effect from a distance is of an inverted lavender, arranged in tiers. Andre Chaudron, however, has big-hooded and tongued blue flowers spaced about an inch and a half apart on the stem, which looks much more elegant. You might mistake it for a Salvia (which belongs to the same family as Nepeta). Andre Chaudron appears rare and expensive, but it is easy to grow and its roots are agile, running all over the place. On the grounds that you cannot have too much of a good thing, I don't mind this, but tidy gardeners who like to allocate a particular space to a plant might find it invasive. In sharp, wet winters all catmints, including this one, can disappear. In cold places it helps to protect them if you leave the cutting down of their stems and flowers until the spring.

Nepeta govaniana is the least familiar form of the cottage-garden favourite. Only the most serious of gardeners would recognise it as a catmint, because superficially everything about it is different. The flowers are a pale yellow colour, and not carried stiffly near the stem but held at the ends of light green branches. The leaves taper and the flowers nod; and, least characteristic of all, it is not fond of sun or drought. Gardeners with cool and shady plots can grow govaniana. They are lucky because it is the loveliest Nepeta of

all - and the least adaptable for the purposes of wanton cats.

The blue catmints are easy edgers. They make a less stiff line than lavender and are not such hard work to keep in order. Under old roses in soft colours they are traditional, but with strong purples and darker blues in late summer they look smart, rather than old-fashioned. Yellow govaniana is a moonlight plant. It is swamped by strong colours and large flowers but in a subtle group it is faultless, and like every Nepeta it flowers for months and months.

(Photograph omitted)