Traveling through the desert is always interesting because of its fascinating combination of plants and animals.

I recently spent a few days camping and experienced the late summer monsoonal moisture that brings the plants to life.

One of those plants — the Agastache — offers beauty, color and fragrance. It is also a natural hummingbird feeder. These interesting plants are great summer bloomers, and they tolerate heat and drought. Newer hybrids offer many colors.

If you don't recognize the name, you're not alone. The various plants in the Agastache family have gone by many names over the centuries, including anise hyssop and giant hummingbird mint.

The Agastache are a genus of some 30 species in the mint family. They are mostly native to North America and Mexico. They are commonly called "hyssops" or "giant hyssops," although these plants are distinct from true hyssop — Hyssopus officinalis. Their name comes from the Greek words "aga" ("very much") and "stachys" ("ears of wheat").

These plants aren't invasive like the spearmint, peppermint and other related herbs. They form clumps instead of spreading by rhizomes so they are good neighbors to surrounding plants in the garden.

Although these plants are becoming popular in many gardens, they have been found in herb gardens for centuries. Agastache foeniculum — the anise or giant blue hyssop — is a half-hardy perennial herb with licorice-scented leaves, which seem irresistible to bees and butterflies.

Larger-flowered hyssops are also called hummingbird mint because they rely on hummingbirds for pollination. In return the plants provide nectar for the hummingbirds. They grow three to five foot plumes of pink or orange blossoms that last most of the season.

If the licorice scent is not to your liking, other fragrances include root beer, bubble gum and several other combinations. In addition to the different perfumes, the many colors besides blue include red, pink, apricot, burnt orange and raspberry.

There are many good Agastache on the market. Remember that depending on their parentage, they will be annuals or perennials in our area. Both annuals and perennials have a place in the garden, but if you are expecting them to survive the winter, select those that are hardy to Zone 5 or lower. Also remember that while some of these plants are drought tolerant once they are established, all need water right after planting. Other cultivars need regular irrigation to stay healthy, and almost all cultivars flower better with irrigation.

The following are a few of the more popular types that will thrive in your garden:

Agastache rupestris — or sunset hyssop — was a 1997 Plant Select winner. This plant shows soft, wispy spikes of orange and lavender with a fragrant licorice scent when the leaves are touched. The flower spikes are two feet high and are hardy to Zone 5.

Agastache cana grows 2 to 3 feet tall with rose-purple flowers that last for some six weeks. It is also hardy to Zone 5 and has a sweet bubble gum fragrance.

Agastache barberi is also known as giant hummingbird mint. The plant bears bright-pink flowers and grows up to 5 feet. It has a hardiness zone rating of 5 through 9.

"Blue Fortune" is a hybrid of Agastache rugosa and Agastache foeniculum that grows 3 to 4 feet with powder blue flower spikes from mid- to late summer. It tolerates heat and drought well but is only hardy to Zone 6. It attracts butterflies and bees and has a minty anise scent.

Don't overlook the new many new cultivars currently being introduced. Honey bee white hyssop is a 4-foot-tall white-flowered plant, and Korean hyssop is a violet-blue flowering plant that reaches 2 feet in height. Coronado hyssop is a Southwest native perennial that bears orange-yellow flowers.


Larry Sagers is the horticulture specialist, Utah State University Extension at Thanksgiving Point.