Mountain Coyote Mint (Monardella odoratissima)
Apparently David Douglas found this quite lovely member of the mint family while botanizing the upper reaches of the Columbia River in the 1820s (30 miles south of today’s Canadian border at Kettle Falls). We found this patch in Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyous. The nearly identical, Monardella purpurea, is an extremely rare species endemic to the same southern Oregon-California region, but in serpentine soils. We are pretty sure this roadside specimen is the much more common M. odoratissima (although we kick ourselves for somehow missing the overwhelming –but pleasant– fragrance that is known to incite allergic reaches in some).
The field of Mountain Pennyroyal we saw showcased several stages of growth. Each stem holds a round flower cluster in a cup formed by reddish sepals. The head inside the cup is covered with rows of small hairy red buds, often 20 or more, making it look like a tiny pincushion before it flowers. Each bud can open into a pink or lavender flower with five petals and four long stamens. Most stems seems to hold a mix of buds and flowers, as shown in the photos below.
What, prey tell, does this plant have to do with coyotes? Well…in a rather complicated academic paper we found online, author and noted ecologist Gary Paul Nabhan explores the similarities of plants given the common name “Coyote”: Coyote brush, Coyote cactus, Coyote thistle, Coyote willow, etc. It appears that the “coyote” moniker comes, not from the animal, but rather from Coyote, the anthropomorphic trickster character that appears in the folklore and mythologies of many tribes of indigenous North Americans.
The mythic Coyote trickster is part of a lineage of folk characters who use special skills for mischievous purposes (think of the fox in Aesop’s fables, or even modern-day Bugs Bunny). It is said that Coyote’s capers can cross and often break physical and societal rules. Inevitably with such pranks, the end is often not what was intended, leaving Coyote with less than he bargained for. Nabhan’s article proposes that plants that reference Coyote, hint at a less desirable or less useful, or perhaps a “wilder” variety or plant character. No mention is made of the specific Coyote-like attribute of Coyote Mint, but perhaps it is its overwhelming fragrance.
With its lovely flowers, pleasant fragrance, leaves that can be steeped for a sore-throat soothing tea, butterfly and pollinator-friendly traits, we’ve put this Mountain pennyroyal on our list to add to our own city-patch of green, where more common mint already flourishes (and supplements our weekend cocktails and asian spring rolls).