Pycnanthemum - Catskill Mountain Love-Mint
As a Denning gardener, I feel most gardening books miss the heart of the matter. All that nonsense about sun, shade, wet, dry, clay, sand, is splitting hairs compared to the one thing that really makes a difference around here: deer-proof or not. I’ve seen plants that like wet growing in dry sunshine and plants that like dry blooming in a bog, but if the plant is not deer-proof it will not survive here. At first it seemed impossible to find any plant that the deer would not eat, but now after a few years of attempting to garden here I’ve got a list of a few plants that are native and which deer really do not enjoy. One of my favorites is mountain mint, Pycnanthemum muticum (pick-NAN-the-mum), which I have never seen growing wild in the Catskills but which is listed as native to Orange and Rockland counties and most of the eastern uplands from Michigan to Maine and south.
I love plants with multiple uses, and mountain mint is one of them. As a mint of course it can be used for tea or just odd munching, though the leaves are a bit tougher than other mints. But the scent of it when bruised is really quite lovely. It’s the kind of thing you want to plant right in the middle of a path, so you have to walk through it. It is in fact one of the better-smelling mints, and it preserves very well, keeping its aroma. The plant has also been known to have aphrodisiac qualities. A few years ago I did some landscaping work at an organic farm in Accord which was run entirely by beautiful women. This is the kind of thing to get a bachelor who normally eats only pizza making weekly visits to the farmstand. Passing through the barn there I saw mountain-mints hanging from the rafters, tied up and drying, big massive bundles of them, three feet tall, like an Entwife’s wedding bouquet. I was instantly so smitten with the field-hand who had tied them up there that I think I still have not gotten over her, even after all the times she has rebuffed me. How can one not fall completely in love with a woman who ties mountain mint up in her barn? Most people don’t even know what the hell mountain-mint is, she had big bundles of it like she’d been growing it for years, I’m telling you there are not nearly enough women like this in the world. I’m still bummed it didn’t work out.
Of course I should mention that she probably had not been growing it for years, it was probably a first- or second-year crop she had. You see pycnanthemum like other mints is a vicious spreader and if put into a mixed border it will take over the whole thing, spreading via infernal red runners which go everywhere. You have to give the plant some room. (Do not believe plantsellers like North Creek Nurseries who tell you it does not spread via runners - I can see the runners on my plant.) My plant came from a friend who was exasperated with digging the plant up out of her otherwise perfectly orderly horticultural compositions. She gave me two or three garbage bags full of the plant, and being me I completely forgot about them for about two weeks and then finally remembered to plant them. Only one survived – if you deprive these plants of moisture they will die – but he looks fabulous. I put him at the end of a border where he is boxed in on three sides, where I think I will be able to control the spreading. I like to put spreading plants in planters but pycnanthemum is large – three feet tall – and does not tolerate drought, making it less than ideal as a container plant. The flowers are white and not terribly showy (in the photos it’s not blooming yet), but while blooming the entire top of the plant takes on a silvery cast which is completely distinctive and makes a nice contrast with other plants. The foliage is a lustrous green otherwise and does not seem to have any problems in our area.
Like other mints pycnanthemum is a tremendous bee plant. Last year my sister complained to me that she was getting no pumpkins on her pumpkin vine – just flowers. I explained to her that I usually put bee plants near my vegetables, to ensure pollination. If bees are in your garden for your flowers they’ll generally find a way to your vegetables too. So maybe, I said, you should put some summer-bloomer, like a mint, near your pumpkin vine. “Oh,” she said. “Maybe that explains it. We’ve been spraying to kill the bees.” Her dog is allergic to bee stings, and of course not nearly intelligent enough to avoid them. I think it’s about time for dog breeders to be taught about the life and work of one Mr. Charles Darwin, but that’s another article. My sister was killing the bees for the sake of her maladaptive purebred. After I got over my amazement that I was related to this person, I said, “Yes, that explains it. No pollinators, no pollination.” She had to buy her pumpkins that year.
So anyway, I always plant some good bee-plants near my vegetables, and mountain-mint is one of the best. When it blooms in August and September – and it blooms for a good four weeks or more – the bees are all over it. There are several more species in the genus, and I’ve started growing another one this year, Pycnanthemum virginianum, which has spindly foliage but marginally showier flowers, and which the bees love just as much. Either plant can be cut to the ground once it has started to form basal rosettes in the fall, and as I have intimated the dried stalks smell great and make neat home decorations. And you can always try hanging them in the barn as a love-charm. I don’t know who the Native American equivalent of Cupid was, but I have no doubt that the god of love would want his North American temples perfumed with pycnanthemum. And if you happen to have any of last year’s mountain mint drying in your barn, and are single, you can always send an email this way. We can grow beautiful tomatoes together.