The Midsummer Garden

Penstemon in the herb bed.

It is Midsummer and as promised here is another list of essential plants for the ecological garden, my Language of Flowers. This list has more lore and fewer entries as I decided to break the growing season into three sections rather than two. Too many plants bloom after May to make it one list, so I set the split at about Lughnasa, August 1. This is the Midsummer Garden, the herbs that you gather under the Midsummer Moon and the flowers that will grace your home and fields from the middle of May until the end of July. Some will straggle into the harvest season, and all of them can be persuaded to continue blooming right up until frost if dead-headed. But don’t be too aggressive with the snips. Many birds depend on the seeds of these flowers, which aren’t going to ripen if we keep the blooms fresh. The list is roughly in order of bloom time, though I’ve found that around Midsummer everything explodes at once.

Lavender (Lavandula spp.): An antiseptic Mediterranean native that needs little but warmth. The Romans named it for bathing. When Adam & Eve left the garden they took lavender, and Cleopatra used its fragrance in her grand seductions. Makes a calming tea and draws peaceful dreams when placed in a sachet under your pillow. Some varieties are so high in resinous oil they can spontaneously combust; the seeds of these species need fire to germinate. This is my favorite flower for all things.

Betony/lamb’s ears (Betonica officinalis, alternatively Stachys officinalis, and Stachys byzantina): Stachys are common grassland flowers native to the Mediterranean. They are mints and spread accordingly. They have a complex scent that some find unpleasant. Both have been cultivated in medicinal gardens for millennia, most often as a protection against witches, demons and ghosts. Maybe because of the odor? Both have spikes of flowers that resemble large grain stalks, hence the name. Lamb’s ears is a hairy, grey plant that will cover the toughest ground in your garden with bee-friendly plants.

Love-in-a-mist/black cumin (Nigella damascena and Nigella sativa): Black cumin or kalonji is used extensively in Middle Eastern & Central Asian cuisine. This spice is the seeds of the nigella sativa plant, not nigella damascena, love-in-a-mist, which has lovely flowers but also poisonous seeds. Be sure you know which nigella you’re planting if you want it for the spice shelf. Bees love both.

Pincushion flower (Scabiosa spp.): Pale, lacy flowers adored by bees,  butterflies and moths — and their larvae. Its name comes from the belief that it cured scabies, a rather horrifying itch. It is a member of the honeysuckle family, and some varieties have a sweet scent as well as sweet nectar.

Blue-flowered leadwort (Ceratostigma plumbaginoides): This diminutive beauty grows anywhere, but best of all it will flower in shade. The shocking blue flowers are followed by red seed heads. As with many blue blossoms, butterflies love it. I’ve seen finches eating the seeds. The name derives from its similarity to plumbago, true leadwort, which Pliny believed would heal lead poisoning. Too bad this is not true!

Beardtongue (Penstemon spp.): A large and diverse genus, there are native beardtongues all over the world. All pollinators love them. Most North American native bees rely on them, as do the plants on the bees. My favorite beardtongue is penstemon palmeri, a gorgeous US Southwest native which sends up huge stalks of snapdragon-like flowers in lush pink all over the desert. I plant beardtongue along the edges of paths in every part of the garden, for myself as much as for the bees.

Statice/sea lavender/marsh rosemary (Limonium spp.): The annuals are the filler flowers in dried arrangements. The perennials are tough plants that put up stalks of feathery flowers that bees love. Related to neither lavender nor rosemary, this plant is in the plumbago family.

Tickseed (Coreopsis spp.): A cheery daisy, native to all parts of the Americas. The unfortunate name stems from a seed pod that does indeed look like a huge tick. Coreopsis is derived from the Greek koris, bedbug. It seems the Europeans didn’t think much of this plant that brings joy to your garden and feeds a profusion of wildlife. Most cultivars need little care and will self-sow, meaning free plants forever. Moonbeam Coreopsis is about the happiest flower you can plant.

Germander (Teucrium chamaedrys): There is no better bee plant than this shy beauty from the Eastern Mediterranean. A member of the mint family, it has a strong scent and will spread into large clumps. It does not like heavy or wet soil, so let this one ramble in the rock garden or down slopes. The pastel flowers look like ladies in Victorian dresses. It’s a traditional medicine for gout.

Nasturtium (Tropaeolum spp.): These “nose-twisters” are in the brassica family with cabbage & mustard. The name comes from a peppery oil found in the plant, similar to watercress (nasturtium officinale). This tangy bite is loathed by many pest insects. But the nectar of the flowers and the warm, bright colors draw hummingbirds and bees. Reputedly interplanting nasturtiums with the squashes & cucumbers will keep the squash bugs away. I haven’t had much success with this, though I still plant them together anyway. Something is bound to work on those demons eventually.

Costmary/feverfew/tansy (Tanacetum balsamita, Tanacetum parthenium, Tanacetum vulgare): The tanacetums are a weedy lot, but useful. Costmary is an aromatic herb; another common name is balsam herb. Monks used the leaves as bookmarks. Feverfew has long been used to cure headache, especially migraine, though there is little research that has supported its efficacy. Tansy is one of those curious plants that is cultivated for a wide range of culinary & medicinal purposes in spite of its toxic volatile oils. It is a highly effective vermifuge and under supervision can be used to treat intestinal worms. It can also kill cows if left unchecked in the pasture, so don’t self-medicate with this one. All the tanacetums produce lovely yellow or white button-shaped flowers. They are considered invasive in some areas, though this may have more to do with keeping a clean pasture than with any aggressive nature in the plant.

Borage family (Boraginaceae): This family of plant wonders includes borage, comfrey, pulmonaria, horehound, heliotrope, the buglosses, and many more. All have somewhat hairy and fleshy foliage with diminutive bell- or star-shaped flowers — many of which are the truest blue in the plant world. Comfrey should always be grown near the compost bed. Borage is another perfect bee plant. Heliotrope has the most lovely scent in all the plant world. Always have these plants on hand.

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium): a species that comes in many forms and flower colors. Also called woundwort for its topical healing properties. Its name is derived from the Greek hero, Achilles, who used it to heal himself and from the many tiny flowers it hoists up on every stalk. In New Mexico it is called plumajillo, little feather, for its feathery foliage.

Coneflower (Echinacea spp.): A North American native, this radiant genus has compound flowers packed in the center of a disk of brightly modified leaves — what we see as the “flower”. It is a perfect bee and butterfly plant. Even hummingbirds have been known to sip the nectar. It is commonly used as an immune system booster in herbal medicine though there are few studies showing that it has any medicinal benefits. (This might be due to medical research funding as the free use of this herb isn’t going to generate revenue. A common problem in herbal medicine “research”. Echinacea does work as herbalists claim, as an effective immune system toner.) It is drought tolerant and tough, with a deep taproot. It will self-propagate and delight everyone for decades.

Woodland phlox (Phlox divarcata): Another North American native, this sweet-scented beauty will draw butterflies to your shade garden. Each stalk holds a bouquet of five-petaled flowers in cool pastels and whites. The name is the Greek word for flame because the prairie and tundra cousins of this meadow dweller have brilliantly colored blooms.

Butterfly weed/milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa): The milkweeds are the top plants for attracting beautiful and beneficial insects to your garden. The plants feed all stages of insect life. The sweet scent of this species will nourish your gardening heart as well. Its intensely orange compound flower is one of the brightest colors in any garden. It is poisonous, which is why monarch butterflies favor it, but the seed pods have been used as food after many boilings. The silky seed pod down can be spun for candle wicks. This is the least aggressive and least toxic of the milkweeds, some of which are problematic in areas with pasture land.

Thistle (many genera): Cotton thistle, with its iconic purple blossom, is the symbol of Scotland. Artichokes and cardoon are edible members of this group of plants. (It is thought that cardoon, carduus in Latin and chardon in French, gives us the name of the village Chardonnay, and hence the name of the wine derived from grapes grown there.) Burdock and centaurea are common flowers along the roadside. Echinops, blue globe thistle, is a striking garden flower. Goldfinches are called distelfinks, thistle-finches, by the Dutch because these birds rely on the thistle for everything from food to nest lining. (Distelfinks are also the stylized birds on barn hex signs and some quilt patterns.) Many of these plants are invasive; all have some degree of uncomfortable prickly. But the worst thistles are not thistles at all — Russian thistles, tumbleweeds, are chenopods, closely related to the bane of the veg garden, lamb’s quarters. Nearly all the thistles are important honey plants, and all attract beneficials if you give these rather unpleasant plants a corner of your garden. Thistle is also the source of vegetable rennet, used in making cheese; and milk thistle has long been cultivated for the veg oil in its seeds. Another not-thistle that is often called one is the genus, eryngium. Sea holly, eryngium bourgatii, is a strikingly blue, thistle-like flower that attracts many beneficial insects. Many eryngiums are used in folk-medicine, particularly to lower blood sugar and as anti-inflammatories.

Black-eyed Susans (Rudbeckia hirta): These cheery golden daisies are the emblematic midsummer meadow flowers. Many species love them, including humans. Hirta refers the hairy flower stalks. Rudbeckias are short-lived perennials, usually treated as annuals in the garden, though they will self-sow and come back year after year. They are important medicine plants, with the roots used much like coneflower to boost immunity and reduce the spread of colds and flus. The Preakness horse race drapes a garland of Viking Poms, a kind of chrysanthemum that resembles rudbeckia, is placed on the neck of the winner. (Black-eyed Susans are not in bloom in May when the race is run.)

Artemisias: These are the most infuriating of plants. They are large, some quite lovely, have many medicinal and culinary uses, attract many beneficials to the garden while repelling the worst insects, smell divine (this is the true “white sage”), and come in all tints of silvery green and blue and white. But they are aggressively invasive, look raggedy unless relentlessly groomed, and aggravate allergies beyond toleration. The name is derived from the Greek goddess of the wilds, Artemis; however, Carl Linneaus named this genus for Queen Artemisia II of Caria, a botanist and doctor who lived in the 4th century BCE. This is a huge genus including wormwood, southernwood, sagebrush, and mugwort. Tarragon is an artemisia as are the plants that give us vermouth (the name comes from the German for wormwood) and absinthe. The lowly Dusty Miller is a tender (not cold tolerant) artemisia, and the various mounding artemisia hybrids like Powis Castle are invaluable in the xeric garden as edging and evergreen foliage. All the artemisias will self-sow and most spread by stolon. So the trick is to keep them dead-headed (the flowers are ugly but beloved by butterflies and bees — though the honey from sagebrush is just gross to my tastes) and site them where they can’t spread much, along paths or in rock gardens. Artemisias will still annoy you, but you’ll find you can’t do without them nonetheless. And you can’t have a moon garden without artemisia.

There are quite a few other midsummer garden mainstays that I didn’t include because I don’t have much to say about them. Some are quite beneficial though, and some are just beautiful. I always grow poppies of various sorts but don’t use them for much of anything but photographs (they sort of dominate my garden photo files).

I grow angelica and valerian and some day I might actually use these herbs, but I let the insects have them for now. This goes for many of the root herbs; I just can’t bring myself to dig up a living plant for what is in my hands rather dubious medicinal benefit. (And in any case valerian tea gives me a headache.) I grow fennel and lovage in every herb garden, but the flowers I could do without (though, like the other carrot family plants, bees and butterflies love them.) I also didn’t include daylily because although I’ve heard they are wonderful edible flowers, I just don’t like them much. Not as garden plants and not as food. And most of the non-human world agrees with me since they are hardly ever the first choice for food — though I have stumbled across bumblebees sleeping cozily in the large flowers.

I use chamomile for everything but usually buy the flowers rather than grow much for myself as it takes a fair yard of plants to brew one cup. I love hollyhocks and marsh mallow and plant them in the backs of the borders, but I don’t see that many other beneficial creatures agree with me. And the deer will just annihilate them, trampling everything in their path to get to these sweet stalks. So I wouldn’t recommend them to gardeners who don’t already have the affinity.

And finally I left off the quintessential midsummer blooms of St John’s Wort and verbena. This is because the first is becoming highly problematic as an aggressive invasive. So it’s fallen into the “just don’t” category. And verbena… yes, it’s the druid’s herb… but… the perennial version, that which is the sacred herb… is ugly. I’ve stopped growing it because I just can’t cope with such a large raggedy weed in the moon bed.

©Elizabeth Anker 2021