July 19, 2022
Our adventure in growing nepitella was challenging. Seeds were difficult to locate and few in number. Spring of 2021, the first flat of twelve seeds was started. Instructions were followed carefully but the seeds just seemed to slumber through the next three weeks. Finally, the tiny seedlings started popping up through the seed starting mix and we were hopeful our efforts would be rewarded.
And then they just stopped growing, bent those little heads over to the side and gave it up. We couldn’t have been more disappointed that they didn’t survive because our motivation for growing nepitella, a somewhat unfamiliar herb, was all about a recipe. Fortunately, we are close friends with a master gardener who happens to be a seed starting guru. His name is Jim and he agreed to take on the task of getting us to the finish line.
Weeks passed with no news of germination. Sadly, we were losing hope of ever getting to try that special dish featuring nepitella. And then one day, Jim surprised us with a visit to the garden. He shared the good news that ten seeds had germinated but he wanted to keep them under his watchful eye for a few more weeks. We happily agreed and, once again, held on to hope that he would be successful. As you might have guessed, about a month later Jim arrived at the garden with a flat of strong, upright nepitella seedlings that were finally large enough for their new home in the edible landscape. Cheers of joy were heard throughout the garden.
Nepitella (Calamintha nepeta) grows wild in the hills around Nepi, an old Etruscan town in the province of Viterbo, Italy, about an hour north of Rome. It is an aromatic herbaceous perennial that spreads horizontally by means of underground rhizomes. The small, fuzzy leaves look like marjoram and taste like lemony mint with notes of basil and oregano. Nepitella blooms in late spring producing tiny pale purple flowers which are edible and attractive to bees. (FYI…As of this writing, July 14th, my three pots of nepitella are still blooming. Those delicate little flowers have been tossed into salads, vegetables, desserts and more!)
If a trip to Italy isn’t on your summer agenda, where old Tuscan towns filled with picturesque scenes leave you dreaming of a stroll up crumbling stone steps to the piazza, then let the heavenly scent of nepitella take you there. You’ll find it used in Italian cookery as an aromatic to flavor all sorts of dishes from beef and lamb through tomatoes and summer squash.
And finally, the recipe that inspired us to start growing nepitella was created by a well-known Italian chef and food writer, Pellegrino Artusi. His 1891 recipe for carciofi in umido con al nepitella (Braised Artichokes with Calamint) is the one that teased our taste buds. It consists quite simply of braising carefully cleaned and quartered artichokes with a bit of tomato paste, fresh garlic and a fistful of nepitella. The happy conclusion to this story is that the flavors of Italy have arrived in our garden and we are thrilled to share them with you.
Linda Alexander, Dallas County Master Gardener Class of 2008
We have eight 4″ pots of nepitella seedlings to give away next Tuesday, July 26th. Look for them on the round table in the Edible Landscape Garden. One per person, please.