Talk about standing out in a crowd.
Hoary Mountain Mint is a wild mint that grows all over the Lake Martin area. Like most undergrowth plants, it’s green … until mid-summer, when it’s uppermost leaves and bracts begin to turn silver. Now, at summer’s end, the plant’s silver-white leaves and blossoms make it truly one of the easiest plants in the forest to identify against a sea of green leaves.
Hoary Mountain Mint and its other common name, Silverleaf Mountain Mint, refer to the color of these standout leaves. Hoary means, “gray or white with or as if with age.” The scientific world knows this plant as Pycnanthemum incanum. The word Pycnanthemum means “dense flower clusters,” and the word incanum means “quite gray.” It is called white mint, horse mint, mountain mint, and although this plant is not related to the garden basils, it is sometimes called hoary basil or wild basil.
In addition to its silvery leaves, Hoary Mountain Mint has a number of other features that help make it easy to identify.
Like all mints, Hoary Mountain Mint has an obviously square stem.
Also common to mints, this Hoary Mountain Mint gives off a very strong, distinctive aroma when any parts of the plant are crushed. It has been described as spearmint-like in some literature, but the smell from the plants growing around Lake Martin this summer would more properly be described as camphor–like. It is a stronger than garden-shop mints.
This is an erect, multiple-branched plant that stands 2 to 6 feet tall. It has broad oval leaves with toothed edges. The leaves can be 1-1/2 to 3 inches long and grow opposite each other on the squared stem, which is covered in tiny white hairs.
Hoary Mountain Mint flowers are densely packed, just like their scientific name indicates. They are small, white or lilac colored and have two lips. The lower lip is spotted with purple. In the Lake Martin area, these flowers mature in late July and August and will continue into early fall.
This is a plant that is native to the eastern United States from Texas to Florida all the way up to Illinois and Maine. Although it is called “mountain mint,” this herb grows well all across eastern America, – in hills and valleys – and it thrives in fields, open forest and thickets. It grows best in rocky or sandy soils. This mint can handle both moist and dry conditions, and it is drought tolerant.
Hoary Mountain Mint is sometimes used to stop erosion (a much, much better choice than kudzu) because it grows so well in our area.
This is an edible plant and has a strong, minty taste. Dried, it can be used as a hot, spicy, minty seasoning for meats, soups and stews.
Native American medicine men considered Hoary Mountain Mint very powerful medicine, and it has been said that fresh crushed flowers stuffed up the nose of a person who is near death would bring them back to life.
A similar tactic – first wetting the flowers and then putting them into the nostrils – was used to stop nosebleeds.
Hoary Mountain Mint could also be made into a strong tannic tea that can be used as an antiseptic and analgesic wash. Weaker teas could be used as a tonic or to treat menstrual disorders, indigestion, mouth sores, toothaches, coughs, fevers, chills and colic, according to altnature.com.
The Choctaw tribe took an unusual approach to treating headaches with Hoary Mountain Mint. They made a tea that the patient drank and then poured on top of his head, attacking the pain from inside and out.
It is also used as a natural insect repellent – rubbing the plant on clothes is said to keep away biting insects. And if the redbugs do attack, putting a muslin bag of Hoary Mountain Mint in a hot bath and soaking for 30 minutes, then rubbing the chigger bites with vinegar is said to stop the itching.
Some people use Hoary Mountain Mint in potpourri, add it to the drier to freshen clothing, put it in drawers of clothing to give them a pleasant smell and to keep away moths, or burn it as incense.
Native Americans were said to inhale the vapors of Hoary Mountain Mint before entering sweat lodges.
It is easily propagated after the fall frost by digging up the plant and using pruning shears to divide the shallow root system. Tip cuttings can be taken in June and rooted.
Hoary Mountain Mint attracts many butterflies and other useful insects, and deer don’t like to eat it, so this silver-leafed standout is a good addition to any Lake Martin butterfly garden; however, like most mints, it needs to be watched so that it doesn’t spread into other parts of the garden where it’s not wanted.
Some information for this article came from Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, the Missouri Botanical Garden, NC State Extension, altnature.com and The National Gardening Association.