Marvelous Mountain Mint

It’s not planting season in most of North America right now, but the first seed catalogs are starting to land in the mailbox, and that means that garden planning season is getting underway.

So, for all these future gardens being planned right now, I would like to recommend one of the single best native plants I’ve ever found, which never gets talked up in those lovely catalogs–the terribly under-utilized, utterly marvelous mountain mint, Pycnanthemum spp.

Pycnanthemum muticum heds and bracts 001

Pycanthemum muticum, Photo by B. Walker, from Wikimedia Commons

Now, most of us know that planting mint is dangerous. I don’t even put mint in a pot and set it on dirt, because I’ve seen roots sneak out the drainage hole, climb over the edge of the little terra cotta saucer and dive into the unsuspecting earth. Mint is great in pots on the deck, but not so good in the ground. (I won’t even SAY the words “lemon balm” while standing in the garden, because I’m pretty sure that summons it…)

 

But mountain mint is a different beast, or at least a different genus, and it doesn’t show up a lot in garden shops, which is a shame. It’s a tall plant that won’t run like traditional mint, and you can plant it in the ground and not come back from a long weekend to discover that you now live in an all-mint savannah. It’s vigorous but not terribly aggressive–I haven’t personally had it volunteer anywhere, but I won’t swear that it can’t–and it will grow on soil that would make lesser plants weep.

All members of the genus are native to North America and in terms of native plants, I have never seen anything so beloved of the little pollinators.  It has dozens of stubby little silver flowerheads, and come late spring/early summer, you can barely see them under the weight of flower beetles and hoverflies and all the other tiny nameless  insects that make the world go ’round without anyone really paying attention.

Bees and butterflies are crazy about it, too–there were always two or three tiger swallowtails lurking on mine last year, and visiting monarchs would stop to taste it as well.

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Photo by Beatriz Moisset, from Wikimedia Commons

There are so many different species of Pycnanthemum that finding one endemic to your region shouldn’t be hard (although finding actual samples of the plant may be trickier!) I warn you now, whichever genus you can find, mountain mint is not going to be a terribly showy plant in your yard–they all tend to be loose gray-green plants, pretty enough in an understated sort of way, forming a pretty good clump in full sun or a slightly leggier clump in part shade.

But once you’ve planted it, that stuff will take any kind of abuse you want to throw at it–lack of water, terrible drainage, the UPS truck trying to make a three-point turn, you name it. I put hoary-leaved mountain mint in the raw clay at the edge of the gravel driveway, an area in which only the daisy fleabane and the dreaded Japanese honeysuckle would grow, and it now gets three feet high and blooms for months. After a year of this, I went out and bought four more–three to accompany the first one, one as a companion plant for my vegetables in the backyard. I am a mountain mint convert for life.

Theoretically you can also use the stuff in place of traditional mint–while not nearly as strong or aromatic, I am told it can be muddled into a serviceable mint julep–and it makes a nice cut flower to boot. But the real bounty is in the pollinators.

Fortunately for those of us who love mountain mint, there are an increasing number of ways to get it! Niche Gardens (which I love dearly) offers two varieties mail order, including Pycnanthemum virginium which could be planted without guilt almost anywhere in the eastern half of the continent. You can also order seeds from several retailers on-line, so when you’re planning next year’s garden, browsing through the seed catalogs, it might be worth taking the time to order a packet of mountain mint.

The little bugs will thank you.

Ursula Vernon is a writer and children’s book illustrator who gardens in North Carolina. She has cats, a boyfriend, a beagle, and is still astonished when anything comes back at all in the spring.

© 2011 – 2013, Ursula Vernon. All rights reserved. This article is the property of BeautifulWildlifeGarden.com We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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Comments

  1. says

    Ursula, I am happy you posted about Mountain Mint because I agree, it’s an underused garden plant and it deserves more attention – the pollinators go GAGA over it and it needs no special care whatsoever to keep it thriving. I grew it from seed I bought from Johnny’s Select Seeds several years ago and I really like the way its soft green foliage and white flowers just seem to flatter everything around it. I hope your post will encourage more gardeners to plant it..

  2. says

    Ursula, I planted Pycnanthemum incanum in the garden beds several years ago~The bees love it and so do I. Plus, it looks fantastic for most of the winter and has held onto the seedhead through snow, rain and wind. I love that in a plant. Gail
    Gail Eichelberger recently posted..Minute By Minute

  3. says

    Here in South Carolina this stuff doesn’t blink when the summers are hot and dry – you can’t beat that. It’s just beautiful too – and covered in pollinators. Nice to see it getting some attention.

    • says

      Depends entirely on your specific area! The PLANTS profile from the USDA can point you to what’s native to your particular range–they’d be the first place I’d go. (The real problem is finding a place that offers that particular variety–Viriginia Mt. Mint is the one most commonly cultivated, but you can find some of the others if you hunt.)
      UrsulaV recently posted..Double Whammy!

  4. says

    I love this plant! And if you enjoy seeing the small Hairstreak butterflies, they love it too. Most of the Hairstreaks are only about the size of your thumbnail so they’re easy to miss. But if you pull up a chair by your mountain mint, you’re sure to spot some.
    Carole recently posted..Ecosystem Gardening Web Roundup

  5. says

    Greetings from Brooklyn. I bought a mountain mint plant from the Park Slope farmers market early this summer and have been delighted with how well it’s grown. My partner used some for ice cream; it was little strong but after the first day mellowed into a nicely strong vanilla/mint with chocolate chunk ice cream. I’m going to try tea this week, using a recipe I found online. Thanks for the helpful info on its many uses!

  6. says

    One more reason to love Mountain Mint..crush the leaves and rub on skin as a marvelous natural mosquito repellent! It works :)

    I planted Pycnanemum pilosum in several areas a few years ago and I like them more each year – as Carole mentioned, they attract a whole host of small butterflies such as skippers and hairstreaks…

  7. says

    Ursula, GREAT post & GREAT plant to promote. My Mountain Mint was shared with me years ago by a fellow wildlife gardener and I’ve potted up and shared 50 more with others. You’re right, it doesn’t catch our eye, but it sure does catch the eye of so many pollinators, including a wealth of ornamental bees and wasps. I love it when Juniper Hairstreaks and Red-banded Hairstreaks are flying. It’s like a game trying to see just how many are nectaring on the Mountain Mint, sometimes several dozen – a sight to behold!
    Pat Sutton recently posted..Mourning Cloaks in the Garden

  8. says

    oooh one of my go-to plants. I put P. muticum at the entrance to Walkway Over the Hudson (Poughkeepsie, NY) and over 1,000,000 visitors have not put much of a dent in it yet, 4 years and counting. It is the last stop before starting across the pedestrian bridge, so MANY dogs have paid close attention; bicyclists’ feet linger there while waiting for their pals to catch up; the maintenance guys slam it with snow. It has never been irrigated. A wonderful plant for the “time-challenged” gardener.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Mountain mint was one of the fascinating new plants I saw yesterday when I visited the beautiful and inspiring Wildside Cottage gardens in Conway.  According to an Illinois Wildflowers page    “Many insects are strongly attracted to the flowers,   including various bees, wasps, flies, small butterflies, and beetles. Typical   visitors from these groups include honeybees, Cuckoo bees, Halictid bees,   Sphecid wasps, Eumenine wasps, bee flies, Tachinid flies, Wedge-shaped beetles,   and Pearl Crescent butterflies. Most of these insects seek nectar. Mammalian   herbivores and many leaf-chewing insects apparently find the mint fragrance of   the leaves and stems repugnant, and rarely bother this plant.” […]

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