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  • Miranda Kohout

Wild Mints

Updated: Jul 24, 2019

The mint family, Lamiaceae, is bigger than you know. It includes the refreshingly fragrant plants we love like Spearmint and Peppermint, as well as culinary standards like Basil, Oregano, and Rosemary, plus all the "balms," such as Lemon Balm, Bee Balm, and Lemon Bee Balm, a particular favorite of mine.

Lemon Bee Balm, Monarda citriodora at Lake Fayeteville

But it also includes non-fragrant plants such as the decorative Coleus, which became a standard addition to my container gardening when our local hummingbirds proved partial to its flowers in the fall.

Plants in the mint family have square stems, and opposite leaves. That is, the leaves grow, symmetrically, opposite each other on the stem. Many, but not all, produce tiny flowers, and many contain volatile oils that produce an easily-recognized fragrance.

Two favorites, both of which can be found growing wild in the woods or gracing local gardens, are Narrowleaf Mountain Mint and Ozark Mountain Mint. Narrowleaf Mountain Mint is new to me this year.

Narrowleaf Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum tenuifolium at Devil's Den

The pretty little purple-spotted flowers are what caught my eye. It looks a little like Boneset, a little like Wild Quinine (if you squint!). The plant pictured above was my second sighting of it, and this time, I plucked a leaf, rolled it between my thumb and index finger, and gave it a sniff. In spite of all I've learned about Lamiaceae, I was thinking "There's no way this is a mint." The classic fragrance, a combination of several volatile oils, the most prominent and familiar of which is menthol, drifted up from the crushed leaf and removed all doubt.

Those are some narrow leaves, alright!

I have special affection for Ozark Mountain Mint, also called White-leaf Mountain Mint. First of all "Ozark Mountain Mint?" That's just teeming with romance. An entire scene jumps into your mind - an old fieldstone cabin in the forest, smoke billowing from the chimney, a wise woman, a fragrant tea, maybe a love potion..

Ozark Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum albescens at Lake Fayetteville

It's also a "sleeper" plant. It's around all year. It starts growing in the spring, gets taller, and larger as the summer wears on, but it's not until mid-summer that it grabs attention. It looks like any other green plant in the woods until July is well under way. During the dog days, the plant flowers, and the leafy bracts right under the flowers turn silver. Once the leaves start to color, this plant is hard to miss. It also has one of the strongest mint fragrances I've encountered. I've heard rubbing the leaves on exposed body parts will repel deer flies, making the joy of finding it even greater.

Pycannthemum albescens is native to the Eastern part of the US, but it is currently imperiled in Illinois, and possibly extirpated in Kansas and Kentucky. It's hard to believe that a native plant that offers beauty and fragrance to any garden could be wiped out in a given state. Overall, NatureServ lists it as "secure," though, and we may see it make a comeback, particularly as it's such a hardy plant, and is still going strong here in the Ozarks, and many Eastern states.