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Plant of the Week: Pycnanthemum tenuifolium Slender Mountain Mint

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Each week since 1997, Dr. Gerald Klingaman has offered readers a unique window as he chronicles of the social history of plants.

"What always interested me was the background of the plants and how they got there and the people involved in bringing them forward," he said.

Klingaman, a retired extension horticulturist who is now operations director for the Botanical Garden of the Ozarks in Fayetteville, Arkansas, has created is a library of hundreds of plant histories that run in newspapers across the state and have become a favorite of gardeners in Arkansas and beyond. We hope you'll enjoy our extensive archive of his works and return each week to see what's new. 

Plant of the Week: Pycnanthemum tenuifolium, Slender Mountan Mint

Most of us can sense the winds of change blowing across our nation. Long-held norms that we have accepted without thought or question are now under scrutiny. Gardening too is changing. Our next generation of gardeners will embrace practices that foster sustainability and wholistic approaches where gardens are woven into all aspects of everyday life. Native plants will be an important part of the new garden ethic that seems to be developing.

Pycnanthemum tenuifolium Slender Mt Mint 2020-06-22 Fay AR  (2)
NATIVE PLANT — Slender mountain mint is a wildflower native in every Arkansas county yet it is seldom seen in garden plantings. (Photo courtesy of Gerald Klingaman)
 

Native plants and their garden apostles are nothing new. These native plant evangelists have long espoused the subtle beauty of our natural flora but have never gained mainstream status. The dominant garden culture – one characterized by lushness and an over the top exuberance of color – has relied extensively on heavy inputs of labor and material to pull this off. In today’s changing world, the “norm” as developed in gardening since the Victorian age, seems to be giving way slowly to more sustainable practices. Suddenly, “insect resistant” plants are no longer considered desirable, instead favoring plants that will nourish the caterpillars and feed the pollinators.

Of course, all garden plants are native somewhere. The rise of a plant from botanical obscurity to prominence in the garden has been a theme of these columns over the past couple decades. The flavor of the day has changed over the years, but the drivers of exuberant color and lushness, combined by a nursery industry structured to feed the beast, has kept exotic plants from somewhere else in the fore of American gardens. Trading the lure of new, bright, and shiny things for subtle home-spun allure will be a challenge, but it could happen.

Native plants – with a few exceptions such as coneflowers, phlox, baptisia and coreopsis – have failed to attract much attention in wider garden circles. For a plant to be “discovered” by a wide gardening audience two things seem to be needed. First there needs to be someone with a sufficiently loud megaphone who champions the plant to get it noticed, and then, there needs to be some financial incentive. Unless the world has skidded completely off its rails, money will likely always remain the principle lubricant that drives plant availability.

Accompanying this piece is a photo taken of slender mountain mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium), growing in Wilson Park in Fayetteville. The mixed border of native grass, the white flowered mass of mountain mint and a couple shrubs exemplify the promise and challenge of gardening with native plants. The overall vibe of the planting is one of subtle naturalism. This low-key planting looks so natural, it feels as if it would take care of itself. Of course it still needs maintenance, but only a fraction of that of a traditional flower bed. Instead of screaming “look at me”, it whispers sweet nothings in your ear.

It will be interesting to see if, once the corona virus and the cry for more social justice has receded from the headlines, everything bounces back to the rat-race world of old, or if a more thoughtful, sustainable world order emerges. I, for one, hope that we emerge from this mess with a better perspective of what is real and worthwhile and what is just showy window dressing designed to impress others. At least in the short term, our homes and gardens have taken on new significance as we fumble around in the dark, trying to find out way back into the light.

For more information about horticulture or to see other Plant of the Week columns, visit Extension’s Website, www.uaex.edu, or contact your county extension agent. The Cooperative Extension Service is part of the U of A Division of Agriculture.

 

By: Gerald Klingaman, Retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - July 31, 2020

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