It's the Ozarks by a nose! (Part 2)
Next up are aromatic plants whose perfume doesn't jump out at you. Rather, these require a little knowledge and some coaxing. But, first, some caveats:
1. I never touch a plant unless I'm pretty sure I know what it is, or, at least, that it's not one that's going to irritate my skin. Let's say I'm generally 60% sure I know what I'm getting myself into when I grab a leaf or stem. Note that I say that as a person who, so far, reacts very mildly to poison ivy. Your mileage may vary.
2. I make 100% sure there's nothing on or near the plant that's going to take issue with my hand or face coming at it. As I remind Doc out on the trail, "No sneak on snek." Nature is great, in part, because it's wild. There are lots of critters that would prefer to be left alone: spiders, snakes, and possums, to name a few. A quick check before you reach for a leaf is in your best interest and any nearby critter's.
3. I am 150% sure I know what a plant is before I nibble on it. Think of it this way: would you bet your life that a given plant is what you think it is? Because you may well be doing exactly that. There's a frequent saying in my mushroom group: Everything is edible, but some things just that one time.
Wild Alliums are abundant in late spring.
Meadow Garlic and similar plants smell just like their cultivated cousin. The small purple - white flowers are very pretty, and just lightly fragranced. You'll get a pungent hit of garlic if you pick from mid-stem. There is a similar-looking plant out there known as Crow Poison or False Garlic (Nothoscordum bivalve). The main difference between it and wild garlic is that it releases no garlic smell when the stem or leaves are crushed or broken. That said, wild alliums like Meadow Garlic, and any member of the lily family, are, in fact, listed as mildly toxic when eaten. Regardless, I'm not a fan of that garlic aftertaste when I'm out hiking, so I generally just enjoy the flowers, and sometimes a little garlic scent. I'll wait until I get home to indulge any cravings for garlic bread.
The mint family!
Monarda, like Bee Balm and Pagoda Plants, can vary quite a bit from species to species, though in some cases the plants can be frustrating similar if you're someone who enjoys specifics and precision. They are all members of the mint family, and many of them release a refreshing mint fragrance when the you crush the leaves. Plants in the mint family almost always have a square stem, with leaves that grow in pairs on opposite sides of the stem, and many of them smell amazing! Menthol is the main compound behind the minty fragrance, but many of these plants contain other compounds, some of which you may want to avoid. Again, I usually pluck a leaf for an energizing whiff, and hike on.
For most of my life, I didn't know that Queen's Anne Lace is actually wild carrot. Had I known the Latin name, Daucus Carota, I probably could have guessed. The flowers are gorgeous, but don't have much of a smell. The leaves, which do resemble carrot tops when young, have a vegetal, carroty smell that is fun and refreshing - one of my favorites. The roots resemble carrots, and can be eaten, but, once again, we've got a look-alike that should be avoided. Common Yarrow, Achillea millefolium, looks very similar. It can cause a severe contact allergy in some people, and is highly toxic for animals. Once you know these plants, they are easy to distinguish, but for those not in the know, it's best to avoid getting to adventurous.
Rose Vervain has a lovely floral, slightly spicy smell. It starts to appear in early spring, along with the different phloxes, which it also resembles, but its fragrance is unmistakable.
A personal favorite from the mint family is Low Calamint. You might also see it called Arakansas Mint, Ozark Calamint, or Wild Savory. As its monikers reveal, it's an Arkansas native. It grows in shin-high carpets in sunny, rocky areas, and is one of those plants you might smell before you see if you're walking through it. Crushing the leaves and stems releases a classic, bracing mint fragrance. I also love the little purple flowers - they are butterfly magnets!
A quick note on picking and foraging: removing or damaging plants, or anything, from a state or national park is against the law. Part of the mission of these areas is to preserve all this natural beauty for the future. For me, sharing these incredible plants means leaving them for the next hiker to discover and enjoy.