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.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.
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.
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