This peppermint-scented perennial shrub is native to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East and has naturalized throughout parts of eastern North America. The compact plants bear small leaves, which resemble those of oregano, and pale lavender bloom spikes appreciated by bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
The common name calamint comes from the plant’s ancient Greek name, kalaminthe, which means “beautiful mint.” In legend, this herb was a tall fruit tree until it offended Mother Earth and was reduced to its present small size as punishment. But like many mints, lesser calamint can spread rapidly throughout the garden if not controlled. Perhaps that is its revenge.
Common Names: Basil Thyme, Lesser Calamint, Mountain Mint
Description: Perennial shrub forms a tidy mound, 15 to 18 inches tall, of small, bright green leaves; lavender-pink bloom spikes last 6 weeks or more; fragrant
Hardiness: To Zone 5
Flowering: Late summer to fall
Parts Used: Leaves
Range/Habitat: Native to Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, and naturalized in eastern North America
Lesser calamint is a popular ingredient in Italian cuisine, where it is sometimes called nepitella. Tuscan cooks add the herb to sautéed mushrooms, zucchini, and tomatoes. In southern Italy, it is used to flavor goat’s milk cheese. Its distinctive flavor—a blend of mint and savory—complements garlic-based sauces, as well as soups and stews.
Lesser calamint’s modern medicinal use is limited: The leaves are used in preparations to treat indigestion and other stomach problems, anxiety, and painful menses. The herb has expectorant properties and may help break a fever by promoting sweating. In ancient times it was used to treat insomnia, expel worms from the body, and promote digestion. It is also said to have been used as a tonic, stimulant, antiseptic, and treatment for flatulence.
Caution: Do not use this herb if you are pregnant. It contains a significant quantity of pulegone, which may cause miscarriage.
How to grow it
Plant lesser calamint in moist but well-drained soil and full sun. Once established, this carefree perennial requires minimal watering. It is rarely bothered by insect pests or disease. While calamint is not invasive the way other mints can be, it does spread readily; to keep this herb in check, grow it in a container and remove seedling volunteers as they appear. Harvest the leaves just as the plants come into bloom. Propagate by division in early spring or fall, or dig up and transplant seedlings.