Friday, October 30, 2009

Red Basil - Calamintha coccinea

Red basil (Calamintha coccinea) is one of four woody mints often referred to as "basils" or "calamints". Calaminthas are perennial evergreen wildflowers that generally have small fragrant leaves that curl under. They are all of rather limited distribution and occur in extremely well-drained sandy/sunny locations.

Red basil is the most widely distributed species of this wonderful genus. In Florida, it is found throughout the Panhandle in coastal dunes and in scrub and sandhill communities. At one time, it was widely distributed in various central Florida scrubs and sandhills, but most of these sites have been lost recently to urban development. Limited populations can still be found in and around Orlando and in east- and west-coast scrubs. Besides Florida, red basil is also found in Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi.

Red basil is a very weakly stemmed woody herb. Well-grown mature specimens may stand 3-4 feet in height with a main stem of approximately 1/4 inch in diameter and side branches of decidedly smaller dimensions. The leaves are tiny; rather elliptical and about 1/4-1/2 inches in length. They are deep green, but widely spaced along the stems. This plant may never be grown for the beauty of its foliage, but what it lacks in verdancy is more than made up for by its blooms.

Red basil has outlandishly beautiful flowers. It blooms heavily in both the spring and late fall months and often has a few flowers at other times in between. Each flower is a rich scarlet red, decidedly tubular, and nearly 2 inches long. Mature plants can have nearly 100 blooms at any time and there are few plants that can turn a head and demand attention as well as this species in full bloom.

Red basil is a classic hummingbird-pollinated species. The flowers are easy to reach and held well above the ground; with no foliage to speak of to get in the way. The deep floral tube makes it difficult for other species to access the nectar and few bees make the effort. Occasionally, butterflies such as the Cloudless sulphur (pictured above) join in too.

Although often quite common in the localized areas it is found in, red basil is not an easy wildflower for the home landscape. Over the years in which I have tried to grow it, I have killed my share trying to find conditions this plant will thrive in. What I have found is that it needs the absolutely perfect drainage that pure sand provides. I have planted it in droughty "typical" residential soils, but it has nearly always perished in these "sands" within a few months.

If you can provide this plant with the well-drained yellow sands that it typically occurs in (white sands can work too), this plant will reward you with an amazing show of color. Florida's native mints are not naturally long-lived and yours are unlikely to last more than 3-5 years even in the best of conditions. Thankfully, this is an easy plant to propagate from stem cuttings (and seed if you get pollinators to your flowers) and it can be maintained with just a little care.

Red basil is not currently propagated by any of the nurseries listed in the Association of Florida Native Nurseries (AFNN), but it can be found in several mail-order sources. Hawthorn Hill is also not currently planning to grow it, but this could change in the future. Let us know if you are interested.


  1. Hi Craig -- check with Rancho la Orquidea in Milton (850-983-8948), an AFNN nursery who is currently listing Calamintha coccinea and Calamintha georgiana. Listings don't always equate to in-stock inventory, and you may have already checked, but just in case ...

  2. Thanks for that. I had forgotten that nursery source when I wrote this. A long drive for most of us, but well worth the trip for anyone already thinking about venturing that way.

  3. I really like this species but my soil type is quite unsuited to it, mesic to wet flatwoods, so I've had mine for years in a plastic nursery pot (little smaller than a 3 gal). It's in the barky potting mix it came in (Plant Delights) + native gray sandy loam. I find southwestern "perfect drainage" plants e.g. Agastache need excessive perlite to survive our rainy season but FL scrub species are adapted to it.
    Some years I add a pinch of fertilizer mid summer but I think topping off new soil would be enough since its habitat is so nutrient poor. Otherwise I do nothing to it.
    The woody habit of the species + tiny leaves have made me curious about bonsai-esque use.

    1. Interesting. Thanks for sharing. I recently purchased 2 nice plants and have taken about a dozen cuttings that I hope will take.


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