Known variously as false rosemary, wild rosemary, minty rosemary, beach rosemary, or scrub mint, Conradina canescens is fairly common in areas where it is found. It is often found along the Gulf Coast of Florida, Alabama and Mississippi with a hardiness tolerance to about 10 degrees F. There are other species of Conradina that are hardier much further north. Needlelike, aromatic leaves less than one inch long clothe the plant year-round. Leaves are grayish green as indicated by the specific epithet "canescens," which means "becoming white or grayish." The olive green leaves have grayish undersides and resemble very soft, fine rosemary. Its presence on windblown beaches with constant drift from salt-laden air makes the common name "beach rosemary" particularly apropos. Because of its tolerance to salt, it is frequently chosen for beach restoration projects after hurricanes sweep through.
Although bloom can occur at almost any time from spring to early winter, spring is the time when the whole plant is most often covered with blooms. For most of the year plants are nondescript gray-green shrubs, but in spring everybody notices them as they become covered with clusters of lavender two-lipped flowers typical of the mint family. Rubbing the leaves will release a pleasant scent reminiscent of lavender and oregano, though lighter and more delicate than either.
This plant has no known toxicity and if often substituted for actual rosemary flavoring by herbal foragers. There are no known uses in the herbal pharmacy either. It is simply a good-smelling plant that lends itself to flavoring food.
False rosemary's choice of habitat in nature is a good indication of the best place to plant it in the garden. Poor, sandy soil with perfect drainage and full sun are preferred. Do not amend the soil and do not fertilize. Plant about three to five feet apart for a mass effect or groundcover. Provide a bit of supplemental irrigation until plants are well established, after which time they require very little care. However, just because a plant is very drought tolerant does not mean that it never needs water. Give the Conradina a drink during extended dry periods. Care should be taken to remove competing plants and weeds since beach rosemary is not an aggressive grower. Unlike many groundcovers, aggressiveness isn't part of its make-up. It does not tolerate 'wet feet' well, so make sure that it is placed in an area where water doesn't stand, or appear boggy. It makes an excellent addition to rock gardens where its creeping habit and love for well-drained conditions gives it an edge over less resilient choices.
False rosemary is an excellent choice for homeowners seeking drought-tolerant, low-maintenance plants. Various nurseries offer it for sale, especially those that specialize in native plants. Check out Dave's Garden PlantScout if you are interested in adding this plant to your landscape.Its forgiving nature also makes it an excellent choice for first-time gardeners.
New plants can be started from seeds that are collected and planted while they are fresh and most viable. Plant them in very well-drained soil, but keep it damp until the seeds have germinated. Then water as needed to maintain moisture. Softwood cuttings can be taken during the growing season and rooted in a damp but well-drained propagation mix or sand. Do not allow the cuttings to dry out. As soon as they are rooted, the cuttings can be moved up to larger containers to allow for further growth of the plant and the rootball. Pinch the growing tips to promote branching and encourage a well-shaped specimen. Rooted plants can be planted in the landscape when they have grown six to eight inches tall. Please purchase plants from reputable, commercial sources instead of collecting them from the wild. The beach rosemary is threatened in several coastal areas, as it has been harvested and removed by construction projects until it is a rare sight in some parts of the beach. You might think that taking just a few would do no harm, but if everyone did that, the coast would soon be stripped. Be attentive stewards of the land.
Other Kinds of Conradina
In all six species of Conradina have been identified. Some authorities consider C. canescens and C. brevifolia as variants of the same species, but the APG II group lists them separately. Besides these two, the GRIN website lists C. etonia (Etonia rosemary), C. glabra (Apalachicola rosemary), C. verticillata (Cumberland rosemary), and C. grandiflora (large-flowered rosemary). These species will be the topic of another article.