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The Mint Family

While walking the shoreline of a pond recently I was suddenly hit with the strong smell of mint. I apparently had stepped on some field mint (Mentha arvensis). Field mint can be found over much of North America in wet meadows, shores, and similar wet habitats. It is quite common here in North Dakota. It grows to perhaps a foot tall, has opposite lanceolate to ovate leaves, and clusters of tiny pink to lavender flowers ringing the stem at the nodes (where the leaves are attached).

Field mint is rather inconspicuous. A person usually doesn’t realize there is field mint around until they step on it. But stepping on the plant releases volatile oils which produce a minty smell resembling that of spearmint. When I encounter field mint, I often crush a leaf or two and put it up to my nose to take a good whiff. It’s one of life’s simple pleasures!

The mint family (Lamiaceae) is a rather large plant family consisting of over 200 genera and somewhere around 6,000 species. They are known for their distinctive aromas due to their volatile oils (e.g., menthol). Mints are known for their square stems. Members of the mint family typically are herbaceous, with simple opposite leaves, and flowers with distinctive upper and lower lips.

Several members of the mint family are common kitchen herbs such as basil, oregano, savory, marjoram, peppermint, spearmint, as well as rosemary and sage (the herb, not the sage as in sagebrush and prairie sages. Some are garden flowers such as lavender (Lavandula), obedient plant (Physostegia), and coleus (Coleus).

North Dakota is home to a couple dozen members of the mint family. If wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa) is not flowering near you, it will be soon. Also known as beebalm, horsemint, or simply Monarda, it is widespread over much of North America on a variety of habitats in grasslands and forested openings. Here in North Dakota, it can be seen flowering from about mid-July through mid-August. Look for it on native prairie, wooded draws and forest edges. Wild bergamot is also one of the more preferred flowers for attracting butterflies to gardens.

So as you are out and about this summer be on the lookout for field mint and other members of the mint family. Remember the square stems!

Chuck Lura has a broad knowledge of “Natural North Dakota” and loves sharing that knowledge with others. Since 2005 he has written a weekly column, “Naturalist at Large,” for North Dakota’s newest newspaper, the Lake Metigoshe Mirror. His columns also appear under “The Naturalist” in several other weekly newspapers across North Dakota.
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