Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is Pycnanthemum incanum, or Mountain Mint. This is a powerhouse of a plant that’s one of the “universal medicinals” – it’s one of the few plants that’s at least somewhat useful for nearly every illness or ailment… even, as we’ll see, allegedly raising the dead. Every native tribe in its range has a strong medicinal tradition of using Mountain Mint and it soon wove itself into the plant medicine traditions of Southern Appalachian pioneers as well, where it continues to be used to this day.
Also known as Hoary Mountain-Mint, Horse Mint, or Wild Mint, this plant is (obviously) a member of the large and diverse mint family (Lamiaceae). However, it is not a true mint (Mentha), and is actually more closely related to another valuable medicinal plant in the mint family we haven’t talked about yet - Bee Balm (Monarda). To those of y’all who aren’t taxonomy nerds like me, this is not terribly important. But knowing what Pycnanthemum’s closest cousins are does help give us an idea of what its edible and medicinal qualities are.
Mountain mint is an evergreen herbaceous perennial – it does qualify as a winter wild edible, as the basal leaves coming out of the ground stay green throughout the winter. It is a large, spreading plant - in late spring, new growth shoots up 3’-4’ tall and about as wide, topped by pretty whitish-purple compound flowers 1”-3” across swathed with a rosette of leaves. Those leaves are 1”-3” long, deeply veined, and look very similar to basil, another member of the mint family. Mountain mint has two primary identifying characteristics: One is that its leaves, especially around the flower clusters, are covered with fine white hairs that look almost like dust or frost… hence its alternate name Hoary Mountain-Mint. However, these hairs disappear when the leaves are wet, so keep that in mind. The other characteristic is the scent. When crushed, they emit a strong herbal smell, like a mix between common mint and Vicks Vaporub, Gold Bond, or anything else with menthol or camphor. These two characteristics make mountain mint easy to identify, and it has no deadly or toxic mimics. However, keep in mind that like other members of the mint family, it’s advisable for pregnant women to steer clear of it, as it can cause miscarriages in rare cases.
There are actually over a dozen species in the Pycnanthemum genus, all of which look very similar and have identical medicinal qualities. Sadly, several of them, especially in the coal-mining regions of the Appalachians, are now extinct. Mountain mints are widespread throughout the Eastern Woodlands, from tropical species in the southern tip of Florida, to hardy northern species that range up to Quebec and Newfoundland. They go from the coast until the trees run out in Oklahoma. They prefer open areas, like fencelines, pastures, open woods, home sites, and waste areas. When I forage for them, I have the best luck finding them on roadsides, especially gravel country roads that don’t get mowed or sprayed much.
Although mountain mint is primarily known as a medicinal plant, it’s also edible. As its scent suggests, it’s got a pungent, herbal flavor that works as an interesting addition to salads and soups, as a seasoning for meat (especially venison), or cooked as a potherb. It’s also great for chewing as a breath freshener. It is a little on the bitter side, though. Every part of the plant is edible, but the young leaves and unopened flower buds are the best. It’s highly nutritious, with lots of vitamin C, E, A, and K, as well as minerals such as magnesium, calcium, and manganese.
However, wild mint really earns its legendary status as a medicinal plant. As I said earlier, it’s one of those plants like Plantain, Wintergreen, Yellowroot, and a few others that’ll cure what ails you, no matter what it is. Wild mint is an alterative, analgesic, antiseptic, diaphoretic, carminative, emmenagogue, expectorant, bronchodilator, astringent, sedative, and tonic. Internally, it’s best used as a tea. Steep a small handful of fresh leaves and flowers or a teaspoon of dried ones in 6-8oz of near-boiling water for ten minutes and flavor with honey, and you’re set. It’s a perfect treatment for colds, bronchitis, or even pneumonia. The analgesic properties help relieve the body aches, and its expectorant and bronchodilator qualities help soothe and clear up a cough. As a diaphoretic, it’ll break a fever – drink a cup of the tea, wrap up in a blanket, and sweat it out. The tea can also help relieve gas, and regulate women’s menstrual cramps and flow during that time of the month. And as a mild sedative, it makes a nice, relaxing tea for calming your nerves and helping you sleep. You can also use the leaves as a temporary relief for sinus congestion from allergies or a cold – throw a big handful of the leaves in a pot of boiling water, place a large towel over your head to catch the steam, and stand over the pot for a few minutes and breathe it. It’s not a cure, but it can definitely give you some relief for a little while.
Externally, the leaves are a valuable poultice for treating cuts, scrapes, bruises, stings, and bites. Thrown in bath water, they help calm down skin irritation such as eczema. A decoction, which concentrates the antiseptic biochemicals, has traditionally been used to treat infected and festering wounds.
Mountain mint has a whole host of other uses, the most valuable of which is repelling insects. It can be dried as a potpourri, and sachets of it thrown in closets and drawers to keep away moths. Companion planting it in a garden can help keep pests away from other plants. But most interestingly, it’s one of the best improvised bug dopes around. Rubbing the leaves on your clothes and skin while in the woods goes a long way towards repelling mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers, no-see-ums, gnats, and biting flies. The treatment works for several hours – when the oils soak into your pores, it actually changes the scent of your sweat and makes you less attractive to bugs.
The power of this herb can’t be underestimated, as is evidenced by the reverence in which native Americans and pioneers alike held it. The Choctaw considered it sacred, and swore by it as a last-ditch effort to revive the dying… and even raise the dead. They claimed that if a medicine man stuffed the pungent flowers and leaves up a recently dead person’s nose, they’d awaken. This treatment was most often used for those who were in otherwise good health, but had been recently felled by battle or accidents. While I’m not sure about raising the dead, it does stand to reason that the menthol-smelling leaves could be used like smelling salts to revive someone who’s fainted or otherwise been knocked unconscious.
Dead or not, we can all benefit from mountain mint’s medicinal and bug repellent qualities. Whether it’s breaking a fever or treating a cough, or just rubbing it on ourselves before we go out in the woods, this plant is a great one to learn and commit to memory. Have you used mountain mint? Do you like it better as a bug repellent or as a tea? Tell us in the comments!
Want to learn how to use mountain mint and a few other plants to make an all-natural and effective bug repellent in a hands-on, family-friendly setting? Join us for Sunday Afternoon Bushcraft: Bug Repellent on Sunday, August 26th from 2pm-7pm. Register now at www.sarcraft.com/sunday-afternoon-bushcraft!