'It's got a royal air to it' Symbol: The blue crab, diamondback terrapin and -- horsemint? Herb enthusiasts are pushing to make the plant a state symbol.


Move over black-eyed Susan and white oak. Make room for a real state plant: horsemint.

The herb with the pointy green leaves and pale yellow blossoms smells like thyme and once was a major ingredient of Listerine. Now it's the cause celebre of the Maryland Herb Association, which wants to make it a state symbol.

"It's got a royal air to it. It's striking and different," said Francesca Hedrick, the association's president.

The herbalists tried this year to persuade state lawmakers to make Maryland the second state to adopt a state herb. In June, Delaware picked sweet goldenrod.

But does horsemint deserve the same status as the Maryland blue crab -- state crustacean -- or the diamondback terrapin -- state reptile? -- or the Chesapeake Bay retriever -- state dog? Or the Baltimore oriole?

Yes, its enthusiasts contend, because horsemint, or Monarda TC punctata, is so versatile.

People can use it like thyme on pizza or in tomato sauce. American Indians used it in tea to treat colds and flu, fevers, stomach cramps and coughs.

It grows throughout Maryland, predominantly on the Eastern Shore. It blooms from July to October on the East Coast from Long Island, N.Y., to Florida and in the South in Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas and Kansas.

An official state herb would be a boon for the herb industry, which only began enjoying mainstream popularity at the beginning of this decade, association members say.

To Leroy Wilton, vice president of the association, Delaware's decision supports his sense that interest is budding in herbs and their uses. But neither his group nor the Maryland Department of Agriculture -- under whose aegis the association formed -- keeps track of how many herb growers operate in Maryland.

The designation of state symbol lends to an industry or activity an authority it may previously have lacked, said Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, a Baltimore County Democrat. The state gets good public relations out of promoting symbols, she said.

"People like to relate to their state and certain things are really indicative of who we are in Maryland. A state symbol does give an industry something to promote that's Maryland," said Hollinger, who this year sponsored a bill to make the golden topaz the state gem. Her bill, supported by the Maryland Retailers Association and the Maryland-DC Jewelers Association failed in its third reading on the House floor.

During the 1997 Assembly session, the association asked Del. Adelaide C. Eckardt, a Dorchester County Republican, to sponsor a bill designating horsemint as a state symbol.

Eckardt, who ran for office in 1994 on a "fiscally responsible" platform, said she did not introduce a bill to the commerce and government matters committee because she felt she didn't have enough information on horsemint and what costs Maryland would incur by making it a state symbol.

"Each time another state symbol is added we need to readjust brochures and there are costs associated with that. I wanted to be responsible about preparing legislation and do more research after the session," Eckardt said.

Signatures needed

By month's end, association members will seek signatures from Marylanders who support horsemint as a symbol. Signatures will give the association more credibility when it approaches representatives.

"We'll let them know there are a serious number of constituents -- not just one or two businesses -- trying to promote this for the state of Maryland," Hedrick said.

More than a 'fad'

Having a state herb would help reinforce the idea that people should be incorporating more herbs into their daily lives, Wilton said. "We need it. Maryland should be up on this issue. This is not a fad."

Hedrick took a more pragmatic stance. "Square dancing was named the folk dance of Maryland in 1994. If they can do that, why can't they do an herb?"

Pub Date: 4/15/97

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