Butterflies are in the pink with winter-blooming native pink mint
Published February 19, 2022, in the McAllen Monitor.
Story and photos by Anita Westervelt, Texas Master Naturalist, South Texas Border Chapter
One spring morning, several years ago, a pink mint plant (Stachys drummondii) popped up in front of the tropical sage patch in my yard. Our weekly volunteer team had just found them all abloom in various gardens in a city park, so I knew what it was and let it remain.
Pink mint is considered the harbinger of spring; for us volunteers, it foretold of warmer days ahead after working in the park for weeks during often-inclement winter weather.
Now, with time gone by, that single plant in my yard has re-seeded itself to near-savannah proportions, breaching the garden border, boldly staking claim amongst the St. Augustine grass. I don’t curtail its advancement. By time it wears itself out and disappears with the high heat of summer, it will have fed untold insects, provided safety for lizards, anoles, beetles and bugs within its dense, spring-green, crinkly foliage and added vivid pink color to a winter landscape.
I thought my plants were just another manifestation of the weird weather of 2021, when I discovered pink mint leaves pushing up through the soil – not at their scheduled time – but on Thanksgiving day, seemingly three months early. The plants were blooming by Christmas and feeding a lone, late-visiting Monarch butterfly. By the end of December and into mid-January, the patch of pink mint fed a dozen fresh white peacock butterflies that darted from bloom to bloom during daylight until they eventually flew off to fulfill their destiny elsewhere.
I can’t say enough about this annual, cold-weather-blooming plant. Up until the first week of February, when temperatures plummeted, and butterflies went into hiding, pink mint was the busiest plant in the yard. I documented 18 species of butterflies, a few flies and wasps, a Southern pink moth and a dusky herpetogramma moth. The wee moths were no bigger than a tiny individual bloom. Three species of visiting butterflies had not been seen in my yard for several years: a common buckeye, great Southern white and an orange sulphur. The monarch butterfly stayed several days.
Bloom time varies apparently for pink mint. Some sources say February. Our local authorities, Richardson, A., King, K. 2011. Plants of Deep South Texas: A Field Guide to the Woody and Flowering Species; Texas A&M University press, College Station, page 291, report that it can bloom fall, winter and spring. A plant fairly unique to the Valley, it is also found along coastal Texas and into Mexico.
The flowers bloom on erect spires around which multiple, two-lipped orchid-like blooms whirl; the bottom lip is larger and speckled with dark pink and white markings. Individual flowers are no bigger than a half inch, yet nectar rich. Pink mint spreads via roots and readily reseeds itself. After the blooms fade, the fruit ripens into four, one-seeded small black nutlets. Seeds are ready to collect when they easily spill out of their bract. Plants transplant successfully during winter and spring, even while in full bloom; pink mint thrives in any soil in full sun or shade.