I cheerfully admit it: wetlands sometimes stink! Many is the time I have smelled an earthy, or musky, or sulfur-like odor as I walked or sloshed around a wetland. Just remember, please— such smells are normal, even beneficial. The characteristic odors are a sign of a wetland at work. In previous posts, we’ve thought about wetland chemistry, and its relationship to water movement and storage. Water carrying silts, sediments, nutrients…it enters a wetland, and is chemically transformed, as the wetland “cleans the water.” That work may not be aesthetically pleasing, however. Actually, your nose is quite attuned to smells which signal something you shouldn’t eat (like materials in a working wetland), and assign those odors as “stink,”and that’s a healthy thing too.
But at Rowley Fen, just outside the town of Rowley in Buchanan County, I was surprised to find something else entirely. Not only did the soil and water have no objectionable odor, I was actually delighted by what I smelled: a pronounced odor of mint! I looked down, and found that indeed I was walking among a thicket of mint plants!
Unlike the ferns and sedges around it, mints produce pretty little flowers with bright petals, presumably to attract insect pollinators. And oh, the aroma! The damaged stems or leaves released a pungent-yet-delightful smell of mint. The smell comes from aromatic chemicals common in the Mint Family (Lamiaceae/Labiatae). Other common characteristics are stems with sharp corners (i.e., square in cross-section) and flowers with a pronounced, and protruding, lower lip (labia means “lip”).
This particular plant is Mountain Mint, Pycnanthemum. I suspect P. virginianum although I could be convinced of P. tenuifolium if someone wants to make a case for it. A search on the internet will find useful information about propagating the plant and its value (including from a local supplier of wildflowers; no recommendation implied by the link). Notice many accounts on line about uses for the plant—food, tea, tonic, specific medicinal value. As I’ve mentioned before, plant use by humans (and cultural significance of plants) is a subject called Ethnobotany, and one I find fascinating. My students (such as those currently in my Field Botany class) enjoy learning about this, too. But I caution you: know with great certainty, the identity of a plant; use caution when considering a food or medicinal use. Even honest writers may inadvertently be passing along faulty information; or, your body may react differently than most. Be careful!
Anyway, it smelled wonderful, partly because it was a delightful surprise: most smells in the wetland are less pleasing (or, with my seasonal allergies, I don’t smell much at all…). Unexpected pleasures are often the best ones, in my experience!
The wetland was nestled in a little low spot, easily reached from the parking lot. A sign welcomed you and explained the basics of the ecosystem. Walking on the peat surface was fun: it had a characteristic spongy texture, riding above the groundwater. The peat mat even quakes a little, reminding me a bit of Silver Lake Fen or Becky’s Fen.
I couldn’t spend as much time at Rowley as I would’ve liked: a thunderstorm was rolling in. But I appreciated my brief visit, and would enjoy returning some time. Maybe I’ll “sniff out” some other little delights. Do you have a favorite natural smell, or place to stop and smell the…whatever? Leave a comment!