Photos of the Week – March 5, 2021

For no particular reason, I’m sharing some photos of wildflowers in the mint family (Lamiaceae) this week. Among prairie plant families, mints seem to get less attention than others, including Poaceae (grasses) and Fabaceae (legumes), but there’s plenty to like about them.

Field mint (Mentha arvensis). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/16, 1/100.

For one thing, most plants in the mint family provide helpful hints to those of us trying to identify them. Significantly, most have a stem that is square in cross section. That’s a very helpful clue when you’re staring at an unknown plant, and it can push you in the right direction in a plant key or field guide. If you roll the stem between your fingers, you can feel those four angled edges. (Be aware, however, that some non-mint plants also have square stems.) Mints also have opposite leaves, meaning their leaves emerge from the stem in pairs, straight across from each other – as opposed to alternate leaves, which appear in a staggered formation up the stem.

Self-heal (Prunella vulgaris). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 500, f/13, 1/640.
Marsh hedgenettle (Stachys palustris). The Nature Conservancy’s Bluestem Prairie in Minnesota. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/16, 1/60 sec.

I was trying to decide how best to describe the way the flowers look on mints and looked up the description of Lamiaceae in my trusty Flora of Nebraska book for inspiration. After reading it, I decided to just quote from its descriptions of mint family flowers. Here you go:

  • “Inflorescences usually of cymes axillary to leaves or bracts, the flowers of one pair of leaves or bracts forming a verticillaster, the verticillasters either borne along the length of the stem or crowded near the tip to form an interrupted or +/- continuous terminal thyrse.”
  • “Flowers usually perfect with the calyx persistent, +/- tubular, varying from regular with 5 (or, rarely, 10) teety or lobes to bilabiate and forming either 2 or 3 lobes;”

There was more, but I expect that clears up any questions you might have had. (heh heh)

(If I was going to start a rock band tomorrow, I would call it “The Persistent Calyxes” and we would play Verticillaster guitars.)

Virginia mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 400, f/22, 1/250.

Of course, the most familiar characteristic of mint family plants are that they usually have a fairly strong fragrance, even when not flowering, thanks to glands in their stems and leaves. There are lots of great examples of this, but my personal favorite mint smell comes from mountain mint (Pycnanthemum sp). It has a very gentle and pleasing scent; not quite as sharp or biting as a peppermint or field mint. So now you know that about me.

Ok, I hope you enjoyed this short tribute to the mints. Wish me luck on my new musical adventure!

Wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies. Nikon 105mm macro lens. ISO 640, f/18, 1/400.
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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

11 thoughts on “Photos of the Week – March 5, 2021

  1. We have several strongly scented mints. I’ve more often then not, NOT been able to find it. Must be some mints that have uncharacateristic leaves.

    I bought an ornamental mint, “Corsican mint” Tiny. It only grew about 1 cm tall. Pale lavender flowers smaller than pin heads. Wonder what pollenates it. Anyway, we named it Napolean, as in the course of a summer it went from covering about 2 square inches to a patch I could barely cover with my hand. “Today, the Rock garden, Tomorrow the World!” was Napoleon’s battle cry.

    Fortunately for us, it’s a zone 9 plant, and we are zone 3. So the Russian (Alberta) winter dashed Napoleon’s plans of conquest.

  2. That said: Be cautious of introduced mints. It can spread quickly and be quite invasive. It’s not as difficult to deal with as creeping bell flower, but it’s a good idea to treat it much like a prisoner of war, and not something to be casual with, until it’s given its parole.

  3. Hi Chris; I love the mint family! Have it every night in a tea before bedtime! I want to know if the buffalo pictured are on the Nebraska Conservancy land, and where it is located. I visit the Kansas Conservancy in the Flint Hills where we do have a small herd. Such a magnificent animal! Are there trails on this land to view the wildflowers? (away from the beasts???) Really enjoy your other photography also! Keep it up! Nebraska is special to me, as I lived in the East, then out west in Hemingford for 5 years, and raised 3 children there. Now as a Senior, I live on 65 acres where we have a native habitat with Tallgrasses, wild area with a stream that brings in the ducks, egrets, herons, a beaver now and then, and are promoting the polinators’ flowers that are native to this area in Overland Park, KS. Many of us are active in the Nature Club, and Grounds committee for our area. Thanks for your efforts! Enjoy your music…I have a Masters Degree in Music and think it glides along beautifully with nature!

  4. Thank you for more education. I had no idea mint was a whole wild family like this. But yeah, Verticillaster guitars would make awesome sound.

  5. When I spotted the specific epithet arvensis, it reminded me of Alauda arvensis — the skylark. It’s a shame it’s not a native on our prairies. It would make a wonderful backup singer for your band!

    I first saw Self-heal in Arkansas, and didn’t realize for over a year that it’s native here, too.

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