I think I’ve found the perfect first plant for those looking to start a wildlife-friendly yard in the eastern United States: mountain mint. When I started my wildlife garden I got swept away by the bold notion of welcoming the wild into my city space and immediately overreached, hatching plans to plow the entire lawn under at once and to start cultivating endangered orchids. Don’t make that mistake, put yourself in a position to succeed. Plant some mountain mint. I specifically recommend short-toothed mountain mint, Pycnanthemum muticum. Plant it and before long you will walk out your door every day feeling like a beneficent monarch on national feast day. Eat of my plenty you bees and wasps! And flies, and hemiptera, and lepidoptera, and other very quickly moving insects I have yet to identify.
The mountain mints make up the genus Pycnanthemum in the family Lamiaceae. Our common cooking mints are in the same family but a different genus. All the mountain mints grow in thick clumps and will spread by rhizomes, often rapidly. The leaves of the plants are extremely aromatic, short-toothed mountain mint particularly so. To me they smell of herbal mint and lemon. The mountain mints produce abundant clusters of small white flowers in midsummer and many, including short-toothed, develop a silvery sheen on the upper leaves that almost resembles a dusting of powdered sugar. They are an important nectar source for many of our native pollinators. Though short-toothed mountain mint is native from Maine south to Georgia and west to Texas and capable of spreading rapidly it is listed as threatened in Kentucky and a few other states (Jones). Never collect plants from natural areas and don’t collect anything from threatened or endangered populations without professional guidance. Mountain mints can be found at most nurseries specializing in native plants. Locally in Louisville Dropseed Nursery and Shooting Star nurseries both carry a variety.
It wasn’t love at first sight between me and the Pycnanthemum. I began my gardening with a fear of mint. In my yard growing up there was a patch of herbal mint my mother did constant battle with. “Plant mint,” she told me every summer, “and you’ll never get rid of it.” We could have had a year’s worth of cooking sprigs and drink toppings just from the escapees we pulled from the surrounding garden. Beginning my current gardens with grand visions of masterfully planned gardens that required minimal maintenance I vowed to contain the “aggressive” species. I planted some different mountain mints but I boxed them all in: in the corner of the deck and the house, between the walk and the lawn, and way back under the soon-to-be-shade of the growing hickory. The past two falls a few quick shovel strokes have kept all the mints contained in their corners.
But late last fall I had a small epiphany regarding my mint fears. I was looking at the wildest of my garden beds lamenting how far behind I’d fallen in weeding. There were mats of grass, carpets of creeping Charlie, bunches of an unidentified berry-producing weed drowning out daleas, and five foot tall pokeweeds lording over the scene. I looked over at my mountain mint, locked in its corner, its white-dusted leaf tips straining skyward and I thought, “What am I afraid of? That it’s going to take over?” If I was going to be constantly fighting aggressive plants wouldn’t I rather fight one that smelled delightful, had pretty flowers and ornamental leaves, was beloved by all kinds of insects, and served as a lemony adornment to tea? Like the Greeks did with Achilles at Troy, like Beorn and the eagles in The Hobbit, like any down and out group of upstarts does when they find a mercenary on their side, I unleashed the mountain mint. I dug up runners and planted them all over the yard. The short-toothed variety in particular has been a champion.
Aggressive plants will drive you crazy, but they can also make you feel like a million bucks. Two springs ago I bought one three-inch pot of short toothed mountain mint. It now covers an easy 100 square feet. It’s been beset by porcelain vine, looming goldenrods, and that unidentified berry-producing plant; it hasn’t missed a beat. I look at my various patches of short-toothed mountain mint every day and think, “I’m an amazing gardener.”
To top it off, not only has it been a willing grower, but the insects have loved it. Walk near the mountain mint at this time of the year and you can hear that delightful low hum that means pollinators are working close by. Over the fluffy blanket of flower heads there is a constant whir of bees, wasps, moths, and flies. It resembles an army helicopter base in fast forward. I’ve spent many recent afternoons enjoying this spectacle, marveling at the busyness, delighting in new unrecognized insects, and enjoying being a sideshow for dozens of hard at work bees and wasps.
Throughout the article and in a large gallery at the end are photographs of some of the insects I observed. Photographing moving insects with an automatic-focus camera is a bit like trying to gather sand in a sieve. The picture qualities are poor and there are numerous omissions: an enormous spider wasp, a Sulphur butterfly, a weevil, and numerous tiny, shy insects. Some I captured only when they landed on different species of plants nearby. But the point is the variety. These were mostly taken in two ten minute sessions. Ten minutes! Who can’t spare ten minutes? Have you any idea how good for your health it is to watch insects for just ten minutes a day?
Someday hopefully my gardens are so large that for want of space I’ll have to pull up some mountain mint patches, but that day is a long way off. What a wonderful plant to start with. If you are looking to start a wildlife garden and you live in the eastern United States, start with some mountain mint. Best of all, start with short-toothed mountain mint. It attracts more visible wildlife than anything in my backyard. And don’t forget about adding those lemony scented leaves to your tea!
Jones, Ronald L.. Plant Life of Kentucky. Lexington, KY: The University of Kentucky Press, 2005.