The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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Heart of the Blue Ridge

Wild Bergamot and Catnip

By Susan M. Thigpen © 1985

Issue: August, 1985

Wild Bergamot and Catnip. Illustration by Susan M. Thigpen.Wild Bergamot and Catnip. Illustration by Susan M. Thigpen.Where does a person begin when trying to describe all the different types of mint? The Blue Ridge has practically every member of the mint family growing wild. Everyone is familiar with peppermint and spearmint and both grow wild and in abundance in shaded moist places here in the mountains.

Close cousins, catnip and wild mountain mint also grow here in abundance, but another family member, wild bergamot, is getting very hard to find.

Once bergamot could be found everywhere, but it was collected in such vast quantities and distilled for its oil. This oil was sold to pharmaceutical houses for commercial use. Distillation of mint oil made up a part of the mountain economy. Many people harvested the wild herbs and it was called "Wild-Crafting."

Mint is one of the oldest herbs known to man and dates back to Greek mythology. The ancient Greeks believed that Pluto, god of the underworld, was so taken by the beauty of a young nymph named Menthe that his wife Proserpina grew jealous. In a jealous rage, Proserpine turned Menthe into this herb and left her forever to grow in the shadows and damp places.

During Biblical times, some people paid their taxes with mint leaves, which shows how much they were valued.

Ancient medical practices used mint for everything from dog bites to skin disorders. However, one old source warned that if a wounded man ate mint leaves, his wound would never heal. It was also believed that mint leaves should never be cut or harvested with a blade made of iron. Although the belief has not been lost to the ages, the reasoning behind it has, and no one seems to be able to figure out why.

All of the mint family have one thing in common that makes them fairly easy to spot - a square stem. Leaves are usually soft and fuzzy. When bergamot blooms, it looks like a blossom that has already lost most of its petals. It looks something like a dahlia that someone used to play, "She loves me, She loves me not". Most of the mint family have blooms that are clusters of tiny blossoms on the end of the leafy stems.

It's easy to identify peppermint and spearmint by crushing a leaf and smelling of it. It will release a wonderful aroma that cannot be mistaken. Catnip, bergamot and wild mountain mint do not have such characteristic scents and are better identified with a good wildflower book.

There are other "cousins" of the mint family to be discovered here and you can find them listed in most good wild flower books. You might like to make a hobby of starting a mint garden with as many varieties as you can find.

If you are interested learning more about herbs, might like to write to:

Herb Quarterly Magazine
P.O. Box 275
Newfane, Vermont 05345

Advertisers in their magazine sell dried herbs, herb plants and offer catalogs you can send for. It is published quarterly and the subscription rate is $20.00 for one year and $32.00 for two years.

I have found peppermint growing directly in the cool mountain streams and it seems like the peppermint you find growing directly in water has the highest menthol content of all.

Once, I was walking across a peaceful mountain pasture and spotted a cherry tree on its far side. As I walked up to the young cherry tree, dotted bright red with fruit, I began to smell a strong aroma of spearmint - the air was filled with it. I began looking around. There was a small stream nearby, but no greenery surrounded it. I then looked straight down and realized I was standing right in the middle of the largest bed of spearmint I had ever seen! A royal palace garden could never have had such a fine mint garden as this one tended by Mother Nature alone.