Torrey’s mountain mint – an oddball species?

In a state whose flora has been studied for hundreds of years, grassland conservation and restoration are still hindered by a need for better understanding of basic plant ecology and systematics. Leighton Reid, Jordan Coscia, Jared Gorrell, and Bert Harris contributed to this post.

All ecologists deal with puzzling groups of plants. In eastern North America, sedges (genus Carex) and panic grasses (genus Dichanthelium) are notorious for having many species with similar characteristics. In Central America, tree seedlings in the avocado family (Lauraceae) can be tricky to separate.

Sometimes we also encounter oddballs – plant species that it’s hard to see where they fit into the contemporary landscape.

Torrey’s mountain mint (Pycnanthemum torreyi) is a bit of both – an oddball species whose relationships to other mountain mints is not yet worked out.

Late-season aspect of Torrey’s mountain mint. Photo credit: B. Harris.

Like others in its genus, Torrey’s mountain mint is an aromatic herb that grows (mostly) in more-or-less open areas. Its crushed leaves have a delightful minty smell. In summer, it produces clusters of small, white flowers that are visited by a variety of pollinators.

Unlike some other mountain mints, Torrey’s is also rare. NatureServe ranks it as a G2, meaning that it is imperiled throughout its range – which extends sporadically from New Hampshire to Kansas.

Virginia has more Torrey’s mountain mint populations than the other states. The Flora of Virginia describes its habit as “dry, rocky, or sandy woodlands and clearings.” In some places, like the Piedmont, it occurs mainly on basic soils, whereas in other places, like the Coastal Plain, it lives in sandy, acidic soils. In the mountains it has been found also in limestone seepages.

An oddball species

While restoring natural areas in Chicagoland in the 1980s, Stephen Packard described some of the plants he saw as “oddball species”. Species like purple milkweed (Aslcepias purparescens) and cream gentian (Gentiana alba) grew neither in closed forest nor in open prairie, so where did they belong? These species preferred intermediate levels of light, such as would be found beneath a spreading burr oak. Packard’s observation that these species preferred savanna conditions sparked his realization that savanna had once been a frequent component of the Chicago landscape.

Matthew Albrecht has considered a similar possibility in Tennessee for Pyne’s ground plum (Astragalus bibullatus). This species grows on so-called cedar glades around Nashville, but it does not grow right in the middle. It prefers the edges where there is intermediate light. This suggests that these cedar glades may once have had softer edges that tapered slowly from exposed, rocky glade into open woodland. With modern fire suppression, these edges have become hard; many glades are now bordered by dense forests of eastern red cedar.

Could our own Pycnanthemum torreyi fall into the same category? An “oddball species” with a preferred niche that is neither full sun nor full shade? In our fieldwork on the northern Virginia Piedmont, we encountered several populations of Torrey’s mountain mint, all of which were growing in edgy sites, like powerline right of ways, or the edge of an old apple orchard.

A small population of Torrey’s mountain mint grows along one edge of this field near the forest edge, not in the open center of the field. Is this typical of this species’ preferred light environment?

Last summer, one of us (Leighton) tested P. torreyi’s habitat affinities inadvertently and with a very small sample size. He planted three seedlings in his small, Blacksburg, Virginia yard – one in an exposed spot on the south side of the house and two in a partially-shaded spot on the north side of the house. The plant in the more open, southerly spot grew okay, but it was somewhat stunted – like a spider plant that has been left out in the sun. Its stem and leaves grew short and tough. In contrast, the two plants on the north side of the house grew full and spread out, both flowering and fruiting in their first season. They also remained green late into the season, even after nearby P. tenuifolium and P. incanum had senesced. If this was a species desirous of full sun, shouldn’t it be doing better in the exposed position in the back by the parking lot?

Two Torrey’s mountain mints growing well and flowering in partial shade on the north side of JL Reid’s home in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Clearly Leighton’s sample is way too small to draw any conclusions, but it does make us wonder if Torrey’s mountain mint prefers and intermediate level of light, such as would be found in a savanna or an open woodland. These disturbance-dependent habitats were once widespread but are excluded today in much of the eastern United States. Maybe Torrey’s mountain mint is an oddball species whose habitat preferences will eventually lead us to design new restoration targets in Virginia, but we’ll have to study its ecology in a bit more detail first.

A “Problematic Species”

The Flora of Virginia also highlights that Torrey’s mountain mint is a “problematic species”, whose interpretation is “confounded by its similarity to Pycnanthemum verticillatum and its hybridization with other species.”

During our fieldwork in 2020, we were able to positively identify all of the individuals that we encountered, differentiating P. torreyi from P. verticillatum by characteristics of their flowers and leaves. Still, the possibility that Torrey’s mountain mint is not a well-differentiated species is troubling. Several landowners in our area are conserving open habitat in part because this rare species occurs there, so it would be nice to know if it is a good species.

I asked Gary Fleming, a Vegetation Ecologist for the Virginia Natural Heritage Program, for his thoughts. “Well, the entire genus Pycnanthemum is a bit problematic!” Gary wrote me in an email. He explained that the problem is that nobody has studied this genus using molecular phylogenetics, that is, using DNA to reconstruct the evolutionary relationships between species. As a result, our understanding of how species in this genus relate to each other is pretty fuzzy.

“Personally, I think P. torreyi is a good species,” Gary continued, “Over the years, I’ve observed it in numerous places state-wide and it appears to be morphologically very consistent.”

In a state whose flora has been studied for hundreds of years, apparently the Pycnanthumum nut has not yet been cracked. Hopefully some enterprising botanist will take this up soon (and maybe Packera while they’re at it).

Torrey’s mountain mint flowers. Photo credit: JL Reid.

Note: Part of this blog post represents a USDA NIFA Hatch project.

Plant diversity, soil carbon, and ecological restoration in Virginia grasslands

Kathlynn Lewis is an undergraduate researcher in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences at Virginia Tech. She is studying soil carbon storage as part of a larger project on grassland floristics, conservation, and restoration in northern Virginia. Keep up with her research on Twitter by following @KathlynnLewis.

How many rare or “cool” plants do you drive by every day without noticing? Do you brake for Buchnera americana? Do you pull over for Pycnanthemum torreyi? This is something not a lot of people think about, and I didn’t think about either until very recently. The answer is that there are more cool plants along roadsides than you would think. Some of the rarest grassland plants in Virginia have found a home in roadside clearings and powerline cuts where regular removal of trees has created an opening for them to grow and sometimes thrive.

This summer the Virginia Tech Restoration Ecology Lab team has been hard at work doing plant and soil surveys in several counties of northern Virginia. We are partnering with the Clifton Institute and Virginia Working Landscapes to find out where these rare grassland plants can be found and what are the greatest threats these populations face.

American bluehearts (Buchnera americana) – a charismatic hemiparasite and rare denizen of high-quality Virginia grasslands. Photo by JL Reid.

Many of the native vegetation surveys have taken us to the locations people might expect to find high-quality grassland plants, such as parts of Manassas Battlefield National Park where the soil and ecosystem have remained relatively undisturbed for almost 80 years. Other areas are much less expected. Rare plants also show up in power line right of ways and strips of roadside with tire tracks crisscrossing them in every direction and markers stuck in the ground indicating the soil was completely displaced to bury utility lines.

A flourishing native grassland at Manassas National Battlefield Park. In July, it was bedazzled with the hot pink inflorescences of scaly blazing star (Liatris squarrosa). Photo by JL Reid.
A hidden gem – high diversity native grassland along a back road in Culpeper County. The two lines show our 50 × 2 m sampling transect. Photo by JL Reid.

During June, we collected samples from 29 sites to compare plant species diversity with the amount of carbon stored in the soil. We also sampled soils from grassland restoration plantings and pastures “improved” with tall fescue (Schedonorus arundinaceus) to compare the effect of different management practices and ecological restoration on soil carbon sequestration. The soil work is my part of the project. My prediction is that soil carbon storage will be greatest in diverse, native grasslands and lowest in degraded fescue fields. I expect that restored grasslands will be intermediate.

A “blackjack” soil sample from a power line right of way in Culpeper County. This soil had so much clay you could pull it out of the probe and tie it in an overhand knot. Photo by JL Reid.

Power line right of ways are an interesting focus of this study because they present both opportunities and challenges for plant conservation. Power companies keep these areas open by cutting out trees and spraying young sprouts with herbicide. This management is the only reason that grasslands exist in these places today, but the rare plants that live there are at constant risk of collateral damage. At least two of the areas that we sampled in June were sprayed in July, harming populations of rare plants like Torrey’s mountain mint (Pycnanthemum torreyi) and stiff goldenrod (Solidago rigida).

Rose-pink (Sabatia angularis) next to a power line right of way in Prince William County. This plant can give away a good grassland even at 60 miles per hour. Photo by JL Reid.

The vegetation surveying team has already observed over 450 species across the 29 sites sampled. Not all of these species are a welcome presence though. Invasive species appear to pose one of the largest threats to Virginia grassland ecosystems we have observed in the field. A newly emerging and particularly aggressive invader is joint-head grass (Arthraxon hispidis) which we have found in many of the sites we are sampling. This annual grass is similar to Japenese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum) but there is very little information about its effects on grassland ecosystems or methods for controlling it.

Joint-head grass (tan-colored thatch) smothering one of the most diverse grasslands in northern Virginia. Photo by JL Reid.

The plant survey team is now doing a second round of sampling to identify later-blooming species, and they are collating information about the land use history at each of our study sites. The soil samples we collected are currently being analyzed (by me) in a lab at Virginia Tech. We will start analyzing data in the fall and hope this summer’s fieldwork will help inform future research projects and the conversation around land management in Virginia grasslands.

The author collects a panic grass (Dichanthelium sp.) for further observation. Photo by JL Reid.

To find out how ecological restoration affects grassland soil carbon storage in northern Virginia, follow the author on Twitter @KathlynnLewis.