As Leonard and I gained elevation along Forest Road #97 near Medicine Lake (Siskiyou County CA), the more mountain pennyroyal (Monardella odoratissima) there was growing along the roadsides. This perennial is native to and confined to western North America. Rocky, open areas at higher elevations (above 3,000 feet) are mountain pennyroyal’s preferred habitat, although it occasionally can be found in wetter areas.
Mountain pennyroyal (also commonly called coyote mint and mountain bee balm) is a member of the mint family and has a very strong mint odor. Glands on the leaves release a minty volatile oil when touched. The aroma is so strong that some people have a quick allergic reaction to it. I love to move through patches of mountain pennyroyal. The smell is delightful!
Growing in small clumps, the hairy and somewhat woody stems are topped by a head (very close, compact cluster) of flowers. This inflorescence has outer bracts that resemble leaves and inner bracts that cradle the flowers like a cup. The individual flowers are pale lavender to white with hairy sepals and five petals, which are fused to form a tube with two lips at the end, the erect upper lip composed of two lobes and the downward curving lower lip having three lobes. There are four long stamens. The opposite leaves are smooth-edged and lance or ovate shaped. Like most members of the mint family, the stems have four corners and are not round.
The entire plant can be used to make refreshing non-medicinal tea. The leaves, stems, and/or flowers (fresh or dried) can be boiled to make the tea, or mountain pennyroyal may simply be allowed to sit in cold water for a while to brew the tea. The tea is almost colorless, so smell or taste must be used to determine the proper strength. The flavor and strength of the tea are also affected by the particular patch of mountain pennyroyal that is picked. The tea is delicious and I recommend it.
Native Americans used mountain pennyroyal as a fever reducer and to relieve stomach pains and gas.
The species name of mountain pennyroyal, odoratissima, means “giving off the most fragrance”, which indeed this mint does. The name pennyroyal is derived from European members of the mint family which were thought to get rid of fleas. The derivation is so convoluted that I have no intention of trying to explain from whence the charming name pennyroyal came. Mountain pennyroyal probably reminded people of the non-native plant and they attached the name pennyroyal to its distant cousin.