Greek Horehound in search of lost time

The horehound, Ballota, is a genus from Europe, Africa and central Asia, but with its distribution very much centred on the Mediterranean. It's not often grown in cultivation and some species may become weedy. 

That said, we have only one reported as a weed of natural areas in Victoria, the Black Horehound, Ballota nigra, and while it has has been collected a couple of times from near Melbourne, these are old records and it may not be truly 'naturalised'.

This photographed species, the Greek Horehound, Ballota acetabulosa, graces the northern path (from the Tecoma Pavilion side) into our Arid Garden. These pictures were taken in late December, where it was just one of many plants flowering their head off in the summer sun.

That said, this species has rather subdued flowers. Still, they are rather exquisite. Clearly a flower of the mint family, with that colour and form. But what's with those fuzzy, button-like collars?

This is the calyx, or sepals, of the flower. The outer layer. It can be tubular or funnel-shaped, depending on the species. 

In the Greek Horehound, it looks to me like one of those scalloped-edged china plates on which my grandmother would serve afternoon sandwiches or sponge-cake. Perhaps a madeleine or two? 

The leaves are more lightly scalloped, although their fleshiness and thick coat of hairs makes this a little obscure. 

Indeed the whole plant is covered in downy hairs, which makes the sharply contoured and coloured basal lip of the corolla (petals) of the flowers stand out even more. The top lip of the corolla, with the spent anthers popping out here, blends more into the background with their sympathetic hairs.

While commonly called the Greek Horehound, it also grows naturally in Crete and West Turkey. In Turkey, almost all of the 16 Ballota species are used as traditional remedies to treat wounds, coughs, digestive problems and even urinary tract infections. That all suggests it has within it some powerful chemicals that may one day be tested and recommended for human use.

As a horticultural specimen Greek Horehound already has a lot to recommend it. It tolerates drought, poor soils and I suspect neglect (anything potentially weedy falls into that latter category, for better or worse). The plant is well adapted to hot, dry conditions with its small, thick leaves and generous covering of insulating hairs.

Apparently even the arrangement of cells within those chunky leaves allows the plant to increase its photosynthesitic activity (making sugars from water and sunlight) in arid conditions. 

I like it for the cute little flowers and the reminder of dinner services past.   


Beth Molnar said…
My grandmother used brew Horehound beer in Townsville: there it grows wild and is invasive, beside roads, and is a declared noxious weed in SA and in WA. Bundaberg brewed the beer in brown stubbies, like ginger and sarsparilla.
Talking Plants said…
That's fascinating, thanks. Who knows what that brew would do for your general health - hopefully mostly good things!