Wall germander (Teucrium chamaedrys or, alternately, Teucrium x lucidrys) is one of those old-fashioned plants that does not receive a lot of press nowadays. That unfortunate fact may be changing soon, however. With many gardeners worried about bee populations being on the decline, it may be hard to ignore a proven and adaptable bee magnet such as T. chamaedrys for much longer.
The Botany of Wall Germander
Those who like to pigeon-hole plants into distinct, neatly organized slots may become slightly annoyed with wall germander. The plant can be classified in a number of different ways, including as:
- A broadleaf evergreen
- A subshrub
- A perennial herb
The most basic label is that of "broadleaf evergreen," a matter-of-fact description based on the look and longevity of its leaves. It is a subshrub in the sense that it has a number of semi-woody stems (that grow in a mounding form and usually do not die back when winter comes) and is perennial in terms of the life cycle.
Finally, the medicinal use to which it has been put earns it "herb" status. Among the ailments that wall germander was used to treat is gout. But its herbal use has fallen out of favor due to evidence that it can harm the liver.
Origins of the Names
As is often true of herbs with such a long history of human use, even the name for this shrubby evergreen has some fascinating stories behind it. The genus name, Teucrium is thought perhaps to derive from the ancient Trojan king, Teucer, perhaps because he was an early user of the plant for the purpose of treating ailments.
As for the species name, chamaedrys means "ground oak" or "dwarf oak." This name refers to how similar (in shape) the leaves on this short plant are to those on the mighty oak tree.
So much for the scientific name of the plant. Meanwhile, the "wall" in the common name refers to this herb's use in the making of hedges (which are "walls" of a sort). "Germander," itself is considered to be a corruption of chamaedrys.
Description, Growing and Care Tips
Wall germander bears dark-green, shiny leaves. They have toothed edges and a nice smell. The smell released from the leaves when crushed makes them prized for crafts. Craftspeople often dry the stems of the plant before using them in potpourri or wreath projects.
Even if you did not know that this herb belonged to the mint family, you might be able to guess this fact from the flowers, which look like those on another member of the family, namely, Prunella vulgaris. Wall germander forms purplish-pink flowers in loose spikes.
Wall germander attains a height of about 1 foot, with a slightly greater width. If you want to form a quick, tight hedge, install the individual plants 6 inches apart. For a looser, more casual hedge, space them 1 foot apart. The plant can spread via rhizomes. While this ability to spread is a potential nuisance, it also means the plant can be useful in erosion control.
The plant is native to the Old World, especially the Mediterranean region. You can grow this evergreen subshrub in North America in USDA planting zones 5 to 9.
Despite its fairly good cold-hardiness, it is recommended for growers in zone 5 that you take suitable steps to improve your chances of avoiding winter damage on the plants. This can be a problem during winters that are cold but not snowy (a blanket of snow acts as a protecting mulch). One way to solve this problem is to gently lay evergreen boughs over the plants (for example, those from eastern white pine or hemlock trees).
But this is still a fairly low-maintenance plant. It is drought-tolerant and deer-resistant. Nor is it overly fussy about its soil, although it does prefer a soil pH that is neutral or alkaline. The Utah State University Extension lists it as moderately salt-tolerant, so it is a good plant to grow if you live near the ocean. Grow the plant in full sun.
Growers typically shear their small hedge of wall germander at least twice a year. Shear once in late winter or early spring and a second time after flowering. If you grow the plants individually (rather than in a hedge) and want the best flowering display, skip that first shearing (because you may be removing some flower buds). The more formal you wish your hedge to be, the more often you will want to shear it. This will maintain its shape and promote denser growth.
How Wall Germander Has Been Used in Landscaping, Traditionally
Traditional uses for the wall germander herb have gone beyond its medicinal use and its use in straight hedges. The plant has been a staple of knot gardens, those wonderful expressions of formal landscape design using geometric shapes, dating back to the Renaissance. It is easy to see why these broadleaf evergreens would be well-suited to be mass-planted in curving lines to form interesting patterns in the garden because they:
- Are dwarf plants
- Have densely-packed leaves
- Are easily controlled through shearing
Some Simpler Uses for Wall Germander
If the concept of the knot garden seems too fancy for your tastes, do not despair. The same qualities that make wall germander a good choice for knot gardens make it a logical selection for much simpler jobs. For example, if a large, full-fledged knot garden is beyond your means, try a simpler design such as one that contrasts germander's green leaves with a plant that has reddish foliage.
This is also a great edging plant. Due to its shrubby, low-growing nature, the plant is equally at home when used in a hedge or as a ground cover. Think of it in terms of a smaller, easier to trim, less expensive version of English boxwood.
The plants are just the right size to line a walkway or one edge of a flower border with a small hedge. Or if you grow an herb garden and want it to look great, border it with a small hedge of wall germander.
Another use for wall germander in the yard is as a plant to lure bees to the landscape. The smaller number of bees around at present is a big problem for gardeners. It raises the threat that our plants will not receive the pollination they need to give us the berries, etc. that we want.
By growing plants that the bees like in your yard, you can help both the bees and your landscaping. For good measure, wall germander is also a plant that draws beautiful butterflies to your garden.
Do not assume that, when you hear the word, "germander," the speaker is necessarily referring to wall germander. That is the problem with the common names of plants: Their use can lead to confusion. There is a plant known commonly as "germander speedwell" that has nothing to do with Teucrium chamaedrys. It is actually a type of veronica, as its botanical name indicates: Veronica chamaedrys.
Bush Germander a Good Topiary Plant
"Bush" germander (Teucrium fruticans) is another distinct type that you'll hear about, but at least it shares a genus with wall germander: Teucrium. Another plant useful in formal designs, bush germander's specialty is the art form known as "topiary." As a larger plant (at least 4 to 6 feet tall and wide; a 7-foot height is possible under ideal conditions) than T. chamaedrys, bush germander is a true shrub that gives you the mass you need to sculpt a topiary.
A drawback is that this Mediterranean plant is not as hardy (only zones 8 to 10) as wall germander. But, like its hardier cousin, it likes full sun and well-drained soil. If you are seeking a plant somewhere in between bush and wall germander size-wise, grow the dwarf cultivar (Azureum) of the former: It becomes only 3 to 4 feet tall.