By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Fall in the Ozarks is a treasure trove of wild edibles. As the wild mushrooms spring up from the ground, hickory nuts, black walnuts and persimmons are beginning to fall from the trees. Indeed, even a short walk through the woods can fill the forager’s basket with little effort. Among the many wonderful edibles ready to harvest this fall, American Dittany is definitely one of my favorites. This dainty perennial herb is often overlooked by many wild foragers and herbalists because of its small size. But don’t let appearances fool you – Dittany is a powerful medicinal herb that doubles as a flavorful seasoning in the kitchen!
American Dittany (Cunila origanoides) is an herbaceous plant closely related to common garden herbs such as Oregano (Origanum vulgare), Marjoram (Origanum marjorana) and Dittany of Crete (Origanum dictamnus) and can be found growing in the wild from the far reaches of the Northeast, south to Florida and west to Texas, Oklahoma and the northern Midwest. Because of its wide distribution and history of use by many cultures, Dittany has many local names, including Wild Dittany, Wild Oregano, Frost Flower, Feverwort, Mountain Dittany, Gas Plant and Stone Mint, among others.
Often found dry rocky woods and clearings, Dittany commonly grows a mere 12”-18” tall, having several branching stems that can grow upright or slightly prostrate. The long, wiry, four-sided stems are indicative of the Mint Family. This particular feature is difficult to discern with the naked eye, but can easily be felt by rolling a stem between your fingers.
Like oregano, Dittany bears its leaves in opposite pairs along the stem. Unlike true oregano, Dittany’s leaves are teardrop-shaped and very smooth. Each pair of leaves is spaced ¼” or more apart along the stems. This characteristic not only makes dittany appear wiry, but it also makes it difficult to see the plant against the normal backdrop of leaf litter.
However, in late summer, this otherwise unassuming plant explodes with soft round clusters of impossibly small, clear-purple flowers that are sure to grab your attention. After the first fall frost, the leaves of dittany change from bright green to deep, reddish-purple.
When Dittany is disturbed, it easily releases its pungent, spicy oregano-like fragrance into the air and many foragers smell Dittany before they ever see it. In fact, there is no other North American native plant that smells as strongly of oregano than Dittany. Indeed, the smell alone can positively identify this plant. Even dead winter stems retain their oregano-like smell.
Like its cousin oregano, the summer and fall leaves of Dittany are wonderfully fragrant and slightly spicy and are used to best effect in any dish calling for any number of the “pizza herbs”.
It is also a strong medicinal herb.
As noted earlier, Dittany is a close relative of Oregano. Indeed, both of these plants are related to the highly flavorful and medicinal herbs thyme, marjoram, savory and monarda – all of which contain the powerfully medicinal compounds thymol, limonine and carvacrol. These compounds have traditionally been used to inhibit or destroy food-borne pathogens such as giardia, E. coli, K. pneumoniae, salmonella, and staphylococcus.
Because of its highly antifungal properties, Dittany can be used to treat the cause and symptoms of fungal infections such as athlete’s foot and externally to help heal and prevent infection of minor wounds, and to soothe the pain and reduce the itching of bites, stings and rashes.
Dittany is probably best known for its ability to soothe the effects of poor digestion such as flatulence, gas, bloating, upset stomach, abdominal cramps and heartburn. The oil of American Dittany is reputed to ease rheumatic and muscular pain and is so well-known as a strong infection-fighter that it is often found in herbal remedies designed to treat respiratory and sinus congestion and infection, as well as cough, tonsillitis, bronchitis, asthma, and even emphysema.
When using American Dittany, or any of its relatives for medicinal purposes, keep in mind that all contain phytoprogesterones that may induce menstruation in women and should not be used by those who are, or who may become, pregnant.
Because of its delicate beauty and usefulness, Dittany is more than a welcome addition to any herb or wild flower garden. It can be transplanted from the wild (but only where the plant is abundant) or started by seed sown in the fall. When given partial sun and rich, well-drained soil, Dittany can easily grow into a small, attractive sub-shrub that is sure to compliment any perennial garden. And as if that weren’t enough, this lovely little overlooked edible and medicinal native just happens to be one of only a handful of plants in the world that produce the elusive and ephemerap frost flower.
Until next time – happy foraging!
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