Mint plants (Mentha) are native to the areas surrounding the Caspian and Mediterranean seas. The powerful fragrance and distinctive flavor of mint has made it a useful herb since the Middle Ages. Mint remains a popular ingredient in toothpaste, chewing gum, teas, oils and lotions. It is a member of the Labiatae family which contains 3500 species of plants, many of which, like mint, contain volatile oils used in cooking. Sage and rosemary are two other familiar herbs in this genus. Mint itself comes in many varieties. While there is no specific mint that is exclusive to the Caspian region, common varieties such as peppermint and spearmint grow there prolifically.
Chocolate mint is identifiable by its dark green leaves and the cocoa overtones of its scent when its leaves are crushed. A red stem and lavender flowers characterize peppermint. Chewing gum and toothpaste are frequently flavored with spearmint, while a larger-leaved version known as Kentucky spearmint is the key ingredient of the mint julep cocktail. Apple mint's round, slightly fuzzy leaves are very light green and fragrant of apples, while the small, green and white striped leaves of pineapple mint release a scent vaguely reminiscent of the fruit.
Mint grows prolifically through USDA zone 3a in full sun or partial shade. Most varieties grow between 1 to 3 feet tall. Mint spreads by underground runners and is prone to taking over garden beds, crowding out other plants. For this reason plant mint in pots or in isolated raised beds at a distance of 2 feet apart. Like most herbs, mint does not benefit from fertilizer and can grow well in relatively poor soil. Pests are not normally an issue for mint, but rust can be a problem. To control rust, remove all affected branches and discard them, keeping them separate from compost pile so that rust does not spread. Maintain clean garden beds by removing debris regularly.
Harvest mint several times per season. To harvest, cut the stems about 1 inch above the ground. Because of its high moisture content, mint is prone to molding as it dries and is easier to use fresh. Attempt to dry it by tying bunches of plants together by their stems and hanging them upside down in a cool place in a paper bag. Check every few days for signs of molding and discard bunches that exhibit it. Once dried, store mint in airtight containers in a dark, cool place.
You can brew mint leaves as a tea. Mint teas are said to aid digestion and soothe the senses. Pick a handful of leaves and wash them well. Brew them in hot water and add sugar or lemon if desired. Fresh mint enhances fresh vegetable and fruit salads, freshens up grilled tofu and can be a palate-enlivening counterpoint to meat, fish and egg dishes.
Mint has been used creatively throughout history. Greek atheletes used it as a muscle balm. Water that went stale on long ocean trips was revitalized with the addition of the herb. Greek soldiers were forbidden from eating mint because it was thought to be an aphrodisiac, decreasing their courage for battle. Diffused peppermint oil can cool a room. A liqueur infused with mint is known as creme de menthe.