Horticulture and botany are strange worlds. The latest offshoot to make it on our list is the Katahdin mint, which one of our farmers has been growing from a cutting taken near Trout Brook, up in Katahdin.
We’d like to be clear that this Katahdin mint is a propagation of a cutting. It is not an ongoing harvest up in the Park. That would be unethical, first of all, illegal, second of all, and a long-as-hell commute, third of all.
We’d also like to be clear that said cutting was taken by a recently retired Unity College biology lab instructor, and an all around careful, conscientious botanist.
I’m not advocating the wanton mingling of biomes; our ecosystems are under enough strain as it is, and the introduction of new species can have drastic unintended consequences. But natural history is full of these small movements, whether they result in an introduced snake running out of stowaway rats to eat and decimating native island birds, or more simply in a grassy windswept pile of stones and a few lovely forgotten herbs, exhaling in the sun.
When we lived in Auburn as young children before moving up to farm in the County, the house we lived in was a dilapidated former Victorian orphanage. In the yard there were 100 year old spruce, and even older maples, and a stand of lilacs I’ve never seen the phenotype of since. Down in a sunny patch of yard, there were irises, the kind you’d recognize as the old classic if you saw them, with deep purple and pale blues, and yellow throats. The tiger lilies walked up the pathway to the house, and the two willows grew around their scars, twenty feet high and tacitly ignoring where someone’d cut them down and sealed the stumps long ago.
Up North, the botanical clues of human presence were much less discernible. I found a sooty gnarled apple tree, twisting alone in the firs on a hill behind a tumble down shed, vibrating warningly with bees. Out past the chicken coop, I spent years in disbelief when I’d discover the same patch of chives hidden in the field grass, year after year. The blackberry cuttings we took from a friend are gradually enclosing the hill in brambles, and the schmancy ‘Mint Chocolate’ mint I planted as a graduation present is co-mingling with the less flashy mint that was there when I took the flower garden out of the weeds.
That far North, it’s like a terrestrial tidal pool–you have to sit still, and look closely at the small details, waiting for your eyes to adjust to movement. If you sat on your heels and waited, and believed you’d be able to see, your eyes would soon separate the ever-so-slightly rounder chive stalks from the grass stalks. Your feet would find the contours of the old roads, and the old roads would follow the older trails.
Living in Central Maine now, I had a recent talk with a friend about lilacs, explaining that if I wanted to find the real old classics, I’d drive down the road looking for granite foundations. That’s where you find horticultural treasures. And out in the woods, that’s where you find botanical treasures.
Many of us who’ve ended up with biology degrees came to the science really wanting to be naturalists. We wanted to tromp around the woods and shores, taking cuttings from the verge, pressing flowers to sketch and identify, lining our window sills and desk tops with mole skulls and owl pellets, barnacles and sea wrack. We wanted to observe natural phenomena across many disciplines, and to experiment just to see what was possible.
Up in our yard in Grand Isle, you’ll see yellow irises we were given by my Aunt Linda, that she took from Massachusetts to Maine, and may have been from somewhere else entirely before that. Some years you’ll see the shy red trillium I planted by the front walkway, shaded under the Japanese maple our predecessors planted. I transplanted the trillium from a far stretch of the farm, just to see if it would grow somewhere other than the beaver pond bog. The oaks and black walnuts we planted the first year we moved up have now, after 20 years, dug in their toes and found their footing.
The traces of man can be hard to see when you’re out at the edge of cultivation. But if you scooch down on your haunches and keep looking, you’ll see the dim outlines of footprints in the living world. It’s possible that someday this Katahdin mint may go feral in this farmer’s yard, and long after he’s stopped weeding that same echo of plant material will be found in the dells of Unity and at the base of the mountain.
Last night I cradled fresh bags of Katahdin mint in my hands as we finished packing in the cooler, and breathed in their scent and flavor. It’s complex and evocative, as only wild things are. The first batch are out on the trucks today, and we’ll have more in the coming weeks. Feel free to send us your questions, thoughts, and ruminations on ecology and man, or call us if you want to taste the smell on your tongue.
Until next time,