From the family Lamiaceae.
The Mentha family is a native of Europe that has naturalized in many parts of the world, including North America, Australia and Japan.
Mint has been cultivated for its medicinal properties since ancient times and has been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 1000 BC. The Japanese have been growing it to obtain menthol for at least 2,000 years. In the Bible the Pharisees collected tithes in mint, dill and cumin. Charlemagne, who was very keen on herbs, ordered people to grow it. The Romans brought it with them as they marched through Europe and into Britain, from where it found its way to America with the settlers.
Its name was first used in Greek mythology. There are two different stories, the first is that the nymph Minthe was being chatted up by Hades, god of the Underworld. His queen Sephony became jealous and turned her into the plant, mint The second is that Minthe was a nymph beloved by Pluto, who transformed her into the scented herb after his jealous wife took umbrage.
Varieties of Mint
The mint genus is large and well known. I have chosen a few to illustrate the diversity of the species.
Mentha aquatica Water Mint
Hardy perennial. Ht. 6-24 in., spread indefinite. Pretty purple/lilac flowers borne all summer. Leaves soft, slightly downy, mid-green in color. The scent can vary from a musty mint to a strong peppermint. This should be planted in water or very wet marshy soil. It can be found growing wild around ponds and streams. Zone 5.
Mentha arvensis var. piperascens Japanese Peppermint
Hardy perennial. Ht. 2-3 ft., spread 24 in. and more. Loose purplish whorls of flowers in summer. Leaves, downy, oblong, sharply toothed and green/gray; they provide an oil (90 percent menthol), said to be inferior to the oil produced by M. x piperita. This species is known as English mint in Japan. Zone 5.
Mentha x gracilis (Mentha x gentilis) Ginger Mint
Also known as Scotch mint. Hardy perennial. Ht. 18 in., spread 24 in. The stem has whorls of small, two-lipped, mauve flowers in summer. The leaf is variegated, gold/green with serrated edges. The flavor is a delicate, warm mint that combines well in salads and tomato dishes. Zone 5.
Mentha longlifolia subsp. Schimperi Desert Mint, Eastern Mint
Hardy perennial. Ht. 24-32 in., spread indefinite. Long pale mauve flowers in summer. Long narrow gray/green leaves with a highly peppermint scent and flavor used to make tea. Plant in free-draining soil. Zone 6.
Mentha X piperita White peppermint
Also known as mentha d’Angleterre, menthe Anglais, pfefferminze and Englisheminze. Hardy perennial. Ht. 12-24 in., spread indefinite. Pale purple flowers in summer. Pointed leaves, darkish green with a reddish tinge, serrated edges. Strong peppermint scent. This is the main medicinal herb of the genus. There are two species worth looking out for-M x piperita black peppermint, with leaves much darker, nearly brown, and M x piperita ‘Black Mitcham’ with dark brown, tinged with reddish-brown leaves. Zone 5.
Mentha x piperita f. citrata Eau de Cologne Mint
Also known as orange mint and bergamot mint.
Hardy perennial. Ht. 24-32 in., spread indefinite. purple/mauve flowers in summer. Purple tinged, roundish, dark green leaves. A delicious scent that has been described as lemon, orange, bergamot, lavender, as well as eau de cologne. This plant is a vigorous grower, Use in fruit dishes with discretion. Best use is in the bath. Zone 5.
Mentha x piperita f. citrate ‘Chocolate’ Chocolate Peppermint
Hardy perennial. Ht. 16-24 in., spread indefinite. Pale purple flowers in summer. Pointed dark green/brown leaves with serrated edges. Strong peppermint scent with deep chocolate undertones. Great in desserts. Zone 5.
Mentha x piperita f. citrate ‘Lemon’ Lemon Mint
Hardy perennial. Ht. 18-24 in., spread indefinite. Purple whorl of flowers in summer. Green serrated leaf, refreshing minty lemon scent. Good as a mint sauce, or with fruit dishes. Zone 5.
Mentha spicata var. crispa ‘Moroccan’ Moroccan Mint
Hardy perennial. Ht. 18-24 in., spread indefinite. White flowers in summer. Bright green leaves with a texture and excellent mint scent. This is the one l use for all the basic mint uses in the kitchen. A clean mint flavor and scent, lovely when served with yogurt and cucumber. Zone 5.
Mentha requienii Corsican Mint
Also known as rock mint. Hardy semi-evergreen perennial. Ground cover, spread indefinite. Tiny purple flowers throughout the summer. Tiny bright green leaves, which, when crushed, smell strongly of peppermint. Suits a rock garden or paved path, grows naturally in cracks of rocks. Needs shade and moist soil. Zone 8.
Mentha spicata Spearmint
Also known as garden mint and common mint. Hardy perennial. Ht. I8-24 in., spread indefinite. Purple/mauve flowers in summer. Green pointed leaves with serrated edges. The most widely grown of all mints. Good for mint sauce, mint Jelly, mint julep. Zone 5.
Mentha spicata var. crispa Curly Mint
Hardy perennial. Ht. 18-24 in., spread indefinite. Light mauve flowers in spring. When I first saw this mint I thought it had a bad attack of aphids, but it has grown on me! The leaf is bright green and crinkled, its serrated edge slightly frilly. Flavor very similar to spearmint, so good in most culinary dishes. Zone 5.
Mentha suaveolens Apple Mint
Hardy perennial. Ht. 2-3 ft., spread indefinite. Mauve flowers in summer. Roundish hairy leaves. Tall vigorous grower. Gets its name from its scent, which is a combination of mint and apples. Suppler than some mints, so good in cooking. Zone 5.
Mentha suaveolens ‘Variegata’ Pineapple Mint
Hardy perennial. Ht. 18-24 in., spread indefinite. Seldom produces flowers, all the energy going into producing very pretty cream and green, slightly hairy leaves that look good in the garden. Not a rampant mint. Grows well in hanging baskets. Zone 6.
Mentha x villosa var. alopecuroides Bowies’ mint Bowies Mint
Hardy perennial Ht. 2-3 ft., spread indefinite. Mauve flowers, round, slightly hairy green leaves, vigorous grower. Sometimes incorrectly called apple mint. Has acquired a reputation as the “connoisseur’s culinary mint”. Not sure that I agree, but mint tastes do vary. Zone 5.
Pycnanthemum pilosum Mountain Mint
Hardy perennial. Ht. 3 ft., spread 2 ft. Knot-like white/pink flowers, small and pretty in summer. Leaves long, thin, pointed, and gray/green with a good mint scent and flavor. Not a Mentha, so therefore not a true mint and does not spread. Looks very attractive in a border, and is also appealing to butterflies. Any soil will support it provided it is not too rich. Zone 5.
The seed on the market is not worthwhile—leaf flavor is inferior and quite often it does not run true to species.
Root cuttings of mint are very easy. Simply dig up a piece of root. Cut it where you can see a little growing node (each piece will produce a plant) and place the cuttings either into a plug or seed tray. Push them into the compost (a standard seed compost mixed in equal parts with composted fine bark). Water and leave. This can be done any time during the growing season. If taken in spring, in about 2 weeks you should see new shoots emerging through the compost.
Dig up plants every few years and divide, or they will produce root runners all over the place. Each bit of root will grow, so take care. Corsican mint does not set root runners. Dig up a section in spring and divide by easing the plant apart and replanting.
Pests and Diseases
Mint rust appears as little rusty spots on the leaves. Remove them immediately, otherwise the rust will wash off into the soil and the spores spread to other plants. One sure way to be rid of it is to burn the affected patch. This effectively sterilizes the ground. Another method, which I found in an old gardening book, is to dig up the roots in winter when the plants are dormant, and clean off the soil under a tap. Heat some water to a temperature of 105°-111°F (40-44°C) and pour into a bowl. Place the roots in the water for 10 minutes. Remove the runners and wash at once in cold water. Replant in the garden well away from the original site.
Dig up root if cuttings are required. Split established plants if need be.
Give plants a hair-cut to promote new growth. Control the spread of unruly plants.
Dig up roots for forcing. Bring in containers. Winter Sterilize the roots if rust is evident during the growing season.
Mint is one of those plants that will walk all over the plot if not severely controlled. Also, mint readily hybridizes itself, varying according to environmental factors.
If choosing a plant in a nursery or garden center, rub the leaf first to check the scent. Select a planting site in sun or shade but away from other mints. planted side by side they seem to lose their individual scent and flavor.
To inhibit spread, sink a large bottomless container (bucket or custom-made frame) in a well-drained and fairly rich soil to a depth of at least 12 in., leaving a small ridge above soil level. Plant the mint in the center.
Pick the leaves for fresh use throughout the growing season. Pick leaves for drying or freezing before the mint flowers.
Spearmint or peppermint planted near roses may deter aphids. Buddleia mint will attract hoverflies, which are predators of greenfly.
Mint is good in containers. Make sure the container is large enough, use a soil-based compost mixed in equal parts with composted fine bark, and do not let the compost dry out. Feed regularly throughout the growing season with a liquid fertilizer. Place the container in a semi-shaded area.
One good reason for growing mint in containers is to prolong the season. This is called forcing. In early fall, dig up some root. Fill a container, or wooden box lined with plastic, with compost. Lay the root down its length and cover lightly with compost. Water and place in a light, warm greenhouse or warm sunroom (even the kitchen windowsill do). Keep an eye on it, and fresh shoots should sprout within a couple of weeks. This is great for fresh mint sauce out of season.
Pick a bunch of eau de cologne mint, tie it up with string, and hang it under the hot water tap when you are drawing a bath. You will scent not only your bath, but the whole house. It is very uplifting.
Peppermint is aromatic, calmative, antiseptic, anti-spasmodic, anti-inflammatory, antibacterial, anti-parasitic, and is also a stimulant. It can be used in a number of ways for a variety of complaints including gastrointestinal disorders where antispasmodic, anti-flatulent and appetite-promoting stimulation is required. It is particularly useful for nervous headaches, and as a way to increase concentration. Externally, peppermint oil can be used in a massage to relieve muscular pain.
The oil may cause an allergic reaction. Avoid prolonged intake of inhalants from the oil, which must never be used by babies.
For many years’ French foodies have made fun of the British custom of eating mint sauce with lamb. Mint has not been used very much in traditional cooking, but slowly, even in France, this herb is gaining favor. Mint is good in vinegars and jellies. Peppermint makes a great tea, and there are many uses for mint in cooking with fish, meat, yogurt, and fruit.
Chocolate Mint Mousse
- ½ cup plain dark chocolate
- 2 eggs, separated
- 1 teaspoon instant coffee
- 1 teaspoon fresh chopped mint, either Moroccan, spearmint for curly
- Whipped cream for decoration
- 4 whole mint leaves
Melt the chocolate in a microwave. Beat egg yolks and add to the chocolate white hot. Add coffee and chopped mint.
Leave the mixture to cool for about 15 minutes. Beat the egg whites and fold them into the cooling chocolate mixture.
Spoon into containers. When you are ready to serve, add whipped cream and garnish with whole leaves.