Lamiaceae: A Family Portrait


Lamiaceae: A Family Portrait
  • Posted December 15, 2014

The mint family is one of humankind's favorites. It flavors our food and beverages, attracts beneficial insects to our gardens and wows us with its beauty. Basil, sage, thyme, oregano, rosemary and many other aromatic herbs belong to the family, as do coleus, lamb's ear, plectranthus, ajuga, lavender, bee balm and other annual and perennial flowers. The Lamiaceae are primarily herbaceous plants, but there are unexpected woody shrubs and trees in the family, such as vitex (chaste tree) and teak, a highly valued tropical hardwood.

One of the defining characteristics of the family is the high concentration of essential oils found in most of the plants. These are responsible for the flavor and aroma of the much-adored herbs of the mint family and in the case of teak; it is what makes the wood rot-resistant.

Teak Trees
Teak Tree Forest in Thailand

There is another purpose for the essential oils of the Lamiaceae beyond pleasing the human palate – they are a natural pest repellent that makes them some of the toughest plants in the garden. Many gardeners believe that they lend this vitality to other plants growing nearby and there is indeed evidence to support the theory, as the essential oils fill the air and saturate the soil all around, helping to repel pests in the general vicinity.

Ajuga Bee balm Coleus
Ajuga Bee Balm Coleus

While the essential oils of mint family plants repel many insects, their nectar-rich flowers attract others. Honeybees swarm to plants like rosemary and lavender that bloom for months on end, making them good companions for attracting pollinators that then pollinate the many other species that bloom for a short period, ensuring good fruit crops for plums, apples, cherries and many others.

lavender Rosemary
Lavender Rosemary

Some mint family species are also hummingbird magnets, especially salvias. Salvias and most other mint relatives bear tubular flowers that have literally coevolved with hummingbirds as the perfect receptacle for their elongated beaks – the hummingbirds get nectar and the plants get pollinated, ensuring survival for both. Along with tubular flowers, Lamiaceae species have square stems and their leaves grow perfectly opposite each other — the three signs that in almost every case identify a plant as part of the mint clan.

Salvia
Salvia


Brian Barth
About the Author

After 15 years as a professional landscape designer and horticulturalist, Brian Barth embarked on a second career to share his passion—and the knowledge he's accrued—through writing. His love of plants is all-encompassing, but he has a particular soft spot for culinary crops.


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Lamiaceae: A Family Portrait