Calamintha arkansana, Wild Savory - 4 (1)
The word savory evokes images of warm, steamy dishes, comforting thoughts of home and hearth. These associations are direct, unambiguous.
Ambiguity is a word easily applied to the plant wild savory, however. More than most of its savage peers, Calamintha arkansana has had a very checkered career - at least with regards to our understanding of where it fits in.
Wild Savoury aka
Those of us with more than a passing interest in the natural world are used to a certain level of debate and uncertainty regarding taxonomic placement or nomenclature of plant and animal species. So Hepatica americana becomes Anemone americana even though it's still "commonly" a hepatica. Felis concolor (cougar, mountain lion) morphs into Puma concolor (or vice versa). To add confusion, different experts don't always agree on the 'current' name, let alone the species genetic history and taxonomic affiliations.
Calamintha arkansana (I use the currently accepted binomial adopted in Ontario by the Ontario Plant List) puts the above two examples to shame with its rich history of names. There are no less than 12 synonyms for the Latin name C. arkansana and at least eight common-name possibilities in North America (see table).
Wild savory is 8 - 18 cm tall with two modes of growth. It produces ground-hugging stolons with thick oval leaves that vary from blue-green to deep green. This allows the plant to grow mat-like over the rocky terrain of its natural homes. It also sends up flowering leafy shoots with linear, opposite leaves, bearing axillary flowers ranging from white to mid-purple. It shares several characteristics with its complex multitudinous mint family: bilabiate flowers, obscurely four-angled stems, opposite leaves and exceptional aromatic oils.
The strong scent may be a clue to its multiplicity of names. Or it could be that since it's a small and seemingly insignificant plant the European botanists who discovered it at different periods in history did not bother to check with their peers before assigning a family, genus or species to it. Linnaeus had no name for the plant.
For many years it was included in Satureja, the genus of two cultivated herbs with which it shares some morphological characteristics: Satureja hortensis (summer savory) and S. montana (winter savory). These two European plants have similar, low-growing habits to wild savory - so the original association through genus is understandable. Satureja (also at one time Satureia) means savory although it's been linked with everything from Saturn to satyrs.
In the United States the presently accepted botanical name is Clinopodium arkansanum. This seems a bit of a mystery, as Clinopodiums are usually much larger, with whorled axillary flowers, although both Clinopodiums and Calaminthas were once lumped together under Satureja.
It seems more plausible to classify it under Hedeoma, and wild savory is known in some circles as H. glabra or H. arkansana. Certainly its cousin Hedeoma hispida is sometimes confused with C. arkansana in plant collections although it has a more weedy habit with smaller flowers.
Neither Clinopodiums nor Hedeomas produce a scent like wild savory. Calamintha arkansana has a fragrance that easily rivals the potency of its cultivated Satureja relatives, but it's less peppery with more of a true mint sense. The strength is astonishing in such a delicate plant. A well-watered grouping of wild savory growing in full sun can easily be detected by scent 10 feet away. To walk through it is to be showered by its perfume. Mints in general have the reputation of producing oils more plentifully with dry treatment. Here, Calamint goes against type. Watering well will enhance its scent. Take care, however, not to drench it so that rot sets in.
In addition to sun and average to slightly better-than-average moisture wild savoury requires a pH between 7.0 and 8.0. About this we must be scrupulous. After all, the plant has a coefficient of conservatism of 10, making it a very special find in wild places (Lupinus perennis also comes to mind).
Like all highly conservative plants it craves a narrow range of habitats. In the wild Calamintha arkansana occurs only in the following communities or habitats: lakeside alvars/limestone pavement lakeshores, treed alvars, limestone glades, damp interdunal hollows and calcareous seeps. In Ontario by far the most common sightings occur on the lakeshore pavements. Just go to the Bruce Peninsula, Manitoulin Island or Lake Erie (this last has precious few) and look for it there. I have also seen it growing quite abundantly on Georgian Bay with Panicum lindheimeri on a limey open beach composed of sand and large cobble.
For the gardener this conservatism demands strict adherence to a set of cultural/biological conditions. The key point is alkalinity. Most limestone/dolostone areas sport a pH from 6.8 to 8.0. If you don't have a suitably alkaline spot you can always haul out the dolomitic lime or even limestone screening to amend with. Here's a tip - combine the amended soil with flat limestone rocks and small gravel to create a path bordered with this wonderful-smelling herb. The roots will creep under rocks where the soil would be damp. Keep in mind that with very sandy soil the watering regime will be more rigorous, as the relatively shallow root system cannot bear to dry out.
Of course given the perfect conditions C. arkansana - like all other conservative plants - can be as prolific as dandelions on a lawn. But the scent alone is worth the effort of creating a special habitat for wild savory, and its free flowering over most of the summer is a distinct bonus for a wild plant. Wild savory usually grows more by stolons early in the year, sets up erect stems in early June, and starts to flower by mid to late June. The peak is usually late July, but some flowers will appear well into September with the right treatment.
One final cultural point to consider is the climate. The natural range of C. arkansana is Ontario to Minnesota, and then south through Texas to (barely) New Mexico. In the northern limit of its range it is almost exclusively a lakeshore plant where the proximity of the water has a moderating influence on the temperature. Try to plant it where it gets some protection from extremes.
Unfortunately, wild savory can no longer be found in much of its original range. It has been extirpated from both Kansas and New York. It is considered endangered in Indiana, rare in Virginia, threatened in Ohio and a species of concern in Wisconsin. Luckily, it is ranked as demonstrably secure in Ontario. It can remain that way with good conservation and good gardening practices.
Charles Kinsley is the owner of Ontario Native Plants Inc. Formerly a terrestrial biologist with the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority he has also worked as an independent ecological/landscape consultant.