Mints are a varied and versatile group of plants--the Lamiaceae family. With over 76 genera, and 817 accepted taxa, mints are culinary, fragrance and medicinal staples worldwide. The plants are characterized by square stems and opposite leaves, but not all of them are fragrant or edible. Be wary of square-stemmed plants of uncertain identity.
Peppermint (Mentha piperita) and spearmint (Mentha spicata) are the classic mints, and probably the first to come to mind when you think of mint. Both are essential culinary herbs used in nearly every course of cookery from meat to dessert--and even beverages. You will generally find peppermint in the form of an extract--especially useful for making candies, but also frequently added to hygiene products like toothpaste, mouthwash, dental floss and soaps. It is also popular in liqueurs and available even in dog treats for freshening breath. Spearmint is useful for garnishing desserts and drinks such as iced tea and mint juleps and adds flavor to candies and breath fresheners just as peppermint does. It is sweeter and less strongly flavored than peppermint. Both are favorite flavors in herbal teas.
Other Culinary Mints
The common or kitchen sage (Salvia officinalis) is familiar to anyone who has ever stuffed a Thanksgiving turkey. Pineapple sage (Salvia elegans) is a lesser known variety with a distinctly pineapple scent and flavor. It has edible red flowers that look pretty in salads, make pretty and and long-lasting garden flowers and are attractive to hummingbirds. Basil is another well-known herb that is also a mint. Perhaps one of the most useful and familiar of the basils is sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), used prominently in Italian cuisine. Another is the holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum). There is also common thyme (Thymus vulgaris), a diminutive herb useful in landscaping as well as cooking. This small plant stands up well to foot traffic and can be used as a ground cover between steppingstones. Rosemary (Rosmarinus offinalis) and oregano (Origanum vulgare) are also mints.
There are relatively few North American native mints, but some of the more familiar are known for attracting butterflies, bees and hummingbirds. Bee balm (monarda) is a prime example. With flower colors ranging from scarlet and lavender to white) it is a mecca for insects. Azure blue sage (Salvia azurea) is an attractive sky-blue wildflower that butterflies love. Pagoda plant (Blephilla spp.), another woodland mint, looks like two pale lavender powder puffs stacked one atop another. The hyssops (Agastache spp.) are another important group. One species, the yellow giant hyysop (A. nepetoides), is threatened in three states, and listed as a species of special concern in another.