Mountain Mist: Basil Thyme
I slept with a few bugs when I was growing up. They sometimes decided to cling to my hair at the end of the day if I had been playing outside, and so they joined me quite often on or in my pillow case. They also hid on the foliage of the flowers that adorned my nightstand. I remember watching the first Sputnik as it circled miles over my head sometime in the late '50's. I was a freshman in high school, and had just stuffed my pillow case with mountain mist, thinking it might make my hair smell like peppermint the next day at school. I was highly interested in luring Billy closer to me, and I thought maybe he liked the scent of peppermint. However, I was more a bug magnet than a boy magnet, and I don't remember that it worked. So along with the dried mountain mist stuffed deep down into my pillow case, there was also a tiny beetle. I could hear him clawing the dried plant as I lay awake watching Sputnik soar above me. I thought the beetle might as well settle down and sleep in my pillow, since I was planning to stay awake and watch Sputnik make a few rounds throughout the night.
Basil thyme, Calamintha nepeta, was "a common wild plant of great virtue, but too much neglected," wrote John Hill in his Family Herbal of 1812. He advised using it as a medicinal tea for weaknesses of the stomach and habitual colic. It literally grew like magic along the edges of cliffs in the untamed flora of my mountains, as long as the sun touched those cliff edges. It must have full sun to grow into its full glory. The ancients did not neglect this plant. They not only used it but also gave it a prominent place in their legends. In a poem attributed to Orpheus, he states that basil thyme was once a tall fruit tree, until it somehow offended Mother Nature and was shrunk to its present form as a punishment. Some of the ancients believed that a poultice of basil thyme applied to bruises removed the dark coloration from the surface of the skin. Of course they left the poultice on for days, and by that time the black and blue marks would be gone anyway.
For the sake of my own old memories, I am going to call it mountain mist in this article, if I start now to call it basil thyme, I will undoubtedly omit one or the other of its double names, and you won't recognize it as either. It is quite different, having neither the sole virtues of basil, or those of thyme. It is its own plant.
It grows in well drained soil in warm, sunny locations; herb gardens, rock gardens; roadsides. It is native to Europe, and is naturalized and grows wild in North America from Maryland and Kentucky to Georgia and Arkansas. It is a hairy perennial herb growing to about 2 feet in height, with creeping rhizomes. Bluntly oval leaves are toothed and aromatic, somewhat similar to thyme leaves. It flowers from July to October in the Kentucky mountains, as best I remember, and ranges in color from a bluish white to a very pale pinkish lavender. The tiny flowers are about a half inch long. They grow in loose clusters at the ends of the stems and branches.
Aunt Bett told me that there were those who thought a tea made from mountain mist would break a fever, and some considered it a snakebite remedy, but she didn't put much stock in either theory. She simply kept the dried leaves and tiny blossoms on hand for one of her peppermint teas that she thought aided digestion. I call it Aunt Bett's after dinner drink, because she used it often, and when I was there for supper with her, I had an after dinner drink, too.
I loved the scent of peppermint. It reminded me of the Christmas candy that was sure to be mine every year. Sometimes in the form of hard candy, but most often in the form of candy canes, it was my favorite. Sometime along the way, my Ninna introduced me to a huge chocolate covered peppermint patty, and to this day one bite of a peppermint patty will transport me right back to the mountains of my childhood. Of course it doesn't take much, since that is where my heart lives anyway tucked away in some pillowcase alongside the beetle.
Today, mountain mist is not used by many herbalists except perhaps to flavor some other remedy, but I think it has come into its own. If ever a plant was meant to be enjoyed for no other reason than the pleasure it gives us, then let's enjoy mountain mist. It is a wonderful edging plant to a garden walkway, or even to any walking path. You can enjoy the scent as you stroll along. If you accidentally crush a bit of it with an errant footfall, the scent just gets stronger. I have a lot of errant footfalls when I am around mountain mist.
I also use it dried in potpourri, stirring it often just for the memories it provides, and I have sprigs of it sitting around in small vases collecting dust, and beneath the dust, there lies the scent.
I found that in Tuscany, Italy, cooks add it to their regional cuisine, and you can find it in the finest restaurants. I have never had peppermint flavored roasts or vegetables, only as an added flavor to the teas that I drink. But then, I have never been to Tuscany, either.
I have it growing in various places in my yard here in western Kentucky, mixed in wild profusion with the mass of daisies that I need to thin out. I do save its dried sprigs, and you can smell its scent in my house, and I think tonight I will add a few of those sprigs inside my pillow case. If a beetle joins me, I hope he'll settle down and go to sleep, happy in the scent of mountain misty memories.
All photos are from Plant Files. Thanks to these photographers: Thumbnail: Sanannie, foliage: Ampy, blooms: Weezingreens, and bare branches: Kizilod.
The Readers Digest Association, 1986: Magic and Medicine of Plants
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