by Laurel Morris
mint (m1nt) n. 1. A member of the mint family. 2.a. Any of various plants of the genus Mentha, characteristically having aromatic foliage and nearly regular flowers. Some plants are cultivated for their aromatic oil and used for flavoring. b. The fresh, dried foliage of some of these plants. 3. Any of various similar or related plants, such as the stone mint. 4. A candy flavored with mint. --mint" adj.
As I eat my mint Lifesavers, I can say that mint is one of the most familiar herb flavors in the world...There is mint in beverages, main dishes, candies, desserts, fruit and vegetable dishes, toothpaste, mouthwash, and even children's medicine.
Mostly members of the Labiatae family, mints are vigorous, low-growing herbs with square stems, and opposite leaves. Mature height can vary from one inch to three feet The essential oil with the refreshing minty flavor comes from glands on the leaves.
Good for You
Most all mints contain these nutrients: Vitamin B1 (thiamine), Vitamin B2 (riboflavin),carotenes, calcium, iron and phosphorus.
A Brief History of Mint
Mint has been used for flavor and medicine at least as far back as the Greeks and was thought of as a sign of hospitality. The Greeks thought mint could clear the voice and cure a case of hiccups, and also served it after a meal as a digestive aid. Chinese and Ayurvedic doctors also used it for a digestive aid, as well as a treatment for colds, coughs and fevers. Spearmint, the most common member of the mint group, was carried by the Romans across Europe. Spearmint, peppermint and pennyroyal were carried by the European colonists of the seventeenth and eighteenth century to many locations, including North America, where it naturalized. Thomas Jefferson grew lemon balm at his home at Monticello, as well as other mints, for medicinal and culinary uses.
The two types of mint most common in gardens are Mentha piperata or peppermint, "peppery mint," and Mentha spicata, or spearmint, "spiky mint."
Mints have vigorous growth habits (with underground stems carrying start-ups of the plant in all directions) and aromatic leaves that bear a volatile oil (containing menthol). Most have small whorls of tiny flowers blooming in summer. All plants in this botanical family have squared off stems with leaves arranged in pairs opposite each other.
There are about twenty species of mint growing world-wide with many, many more transitional forms, hybrids, and regional variations. Some of the favorites are:
Apple Mint - Light green leaves and a light apple fragrance.
Pineapple Mint - Very similar to apple mint but with a white edging to the leaves. Sometimes labeled as Apple Mint Variegata.
Spearmint - Mentha spicata-It has a strong, sweet scent. The crinkled or smooth stems have a tinge of red. The bright green leaves are pointed and toothed, and the lavender flower spikes are 2 to 4 inches long. . Peppermint - Mentha x piperita -This sterile hybrid has square stems tinted reddish purple with dark green leaves and purple flowers. This plant is said to repel aphids, flea beetles, and cabbage pests. Grow near roses to deter aphids. Lemon balm -Melissa officinalis-This plant has hairy, square, stems and lemon scented leaves. The fruit is a smooth nutlet. This plant attracts bees to the garden. Catnip - Nepeta cataria - The serrated gray-green leaves are covered with soft fuzz. Bees and butterflies are attracted to catnip, so plant it where pollination is needed. Apple Mint - Mentha suaveolens (Lamiaceae family) - Leaves have a sweet scent. With its attractive foliage and flowers, it makes a nice container plant
Propagating & Growing Mint
Cultivation Since most mints spread rapidly, it is wise to give them lots of space. Find out the maximum height of your plant in order to place it as either a front border-type plant or to place in the background. It grows best in a damp, part-shady location (about four hours of sun is good) with rich soil. Mint planted outdoors should be mulched heavily to protect against frost. Most mints are hardy to zone 5.
Many types can be started from seed. One exception is peppermint, which is sterile. But if you have access to a plant, it is much easier to pull up a runner with some roots already on it, and plant that. Or take cuttings and root in water or divide roots of the main plant. The plant is invasive and should be grown in pots if confinement is desired. These are very low maintenance plants!
Cut the plants back in autumn and mulch to get them ready for the colder winter months.
Managing Mint Steps can be taken to lessen the chance of mint taking over your garden. Check often for the runners or stolons. Dig around the plants about an inch deep and pull them up. Confine it. Plant it in pots, window boxes, half-barrels, or a long piece of clay pipe sunk into the ground. Even when using a confinement or barrier, you still must keep checking for runners. If there is a small opening for the mint to escape, it will.
Pests & Diseases
Caterpillars can usually be handpicked. They are repelled by wormwood spray or insect spray.
Rust appears as bright orange markings on the foliage of herbs such as mint and chives. Destroy all affected foliage. Do not place diseased plants or foliage in the compost bin. If a mild commercial copper spray does not curb the disease, destroy the plants.
Other problems that can occur are verticillium wilt, mint anthracnose, spider mites, loopers, flea beetles, root borers, grasshoppers, cutworms, root weevils, and aphids.
Harvesting and Storing
When mint is coming into flower and has its highest oil content, that is the best time to harvest this and many other herbs. Just before you harvest mint, spray it with water to wash off any dust or debris. Then shake the branches to remove the excess water. Clip the branches down to about three inches.
Peppermint and spearmint are best fresh; cut as needed. They can be frozen in ice cube trays with a little water.
Catnip: Harvest young leaves and flowering tops when fully open, before they turn brown. Both blooms and foliage shrink at least 50 percent. The leaves shrivel and darken, while the flowers lose coloration. The fresh, woodsy fragrance remains after drying.
Lemon Balm: Harvest before the plant flowers. Dry quickly or the leaves will turn black. Store in an airtight container
Mint is best dried by laying the stems flat on a screen tray. If you have no screen tray, use a flat surface covered with paper towels or cheesecloth. Try to keep the mint in a single layer. If you cannot do this, rotate the stems daily to prevent the lower layers from rotting. This rotation also encourages the drying process. Or you can try the paper bag method. Get a large, clean paper bag and place the mint stems in the bag very loosely. Check the bag daily, and move the stems around to encourage a little air circulation. When the leaves are dry and crisp, remove them from the stems. Make sure the leaves are completely dry, or they will not keep when put in containers. It is best to use glass jars with tight-fitting lids.
Culinary and Other Uses
- Mix chopped mint with butter for boiled new potatoes (or with parsley or dill).
- Freeze whole mint leaves in ice cubes for tea or lemonade.
- Use mint leaves in a salad of oranges and red onions.
- Toss whole mint leaves in cooked rice before serving.
- Chop spearmint or apple mint and mix with butter. Spread on lamb chops. Grill or broil chops.
- Make salad dressing with mint, lemon juice, vinegar and a light oil.
- Chop spearmint and mix with olive oil and use as a marinade for fresh tuna. Marinate 30 minutes, grill.
- To give minty flavor to chocolate, simmer chopped mint with cream, strain and use to prepare puddings.
- Add to the poaching liquid when making poached pears or other poached fruits.
- Put mint in water used to steam vegetables.
- Sauté zucchini. Add a little Parmesan cheese and chopped mint. Place mint in boiling water and allow to steep.
- Spearmint, peppermint and apple mint sprigs can be added to drinks and fruit dishes as a garnish. It also makes a refreshing tea.
- Peppermint makes an excellent flavoring for ice cream, chocolates, and other deserts.
- Make fresh brewed old-fashioned iced tea made with your favorite tea and big bundles of fresh mint stalks and leaves and with lots of lemon.
- Spearmint leaves can be placed in drawers to repel moths.
- Use dried mint leaves in potpourri
- Fresh lemon balm leaves are used in salads, marinades for vegetables, chicken salad, and poultry stuffings.
- Use catnip salads and tea. Fresh leaves can be rubbed on raw meat as a tenderizer or mixed with olive oil and seasonings for a marinade. The dried leaves are used in cat toys. My cat eats it fresh!
- Apple mint can be used to make flavored vinegars.
Peppermint is the mint of choice for medicinal purposes. Its many uses include relief of indigestion, flavoring for toothpaste, liver tonic, pain relief and sedative. Mints are frequently used to settle the stomach and stimulate digestion, and also assist in reducing infection and inflammation. Oils of both spearmint and peppermint are used in aromatherapy to assist with mental fatigue, headache, colds, coughs, asthma, and bronchitis.
Pennyroyal, which is toxic when taken internally, has many other uses around the house. Rub pennyroyal on the skin as an insect repellant. Since it has been known to irritate sensitive skin, test on a small patch of skin first. Rub pennyroyal on your dog's coat to deter fleas. Try placing a few leaves in your pet's bed, too. Plant under roses to retain moisture to repel aphids, and improve the overall health of rose bushes.
Add to flower boxes and hanging baskets for fragrance and beauty. All mints are good as cut flowers and foliage for indoor arrangements.
For potpourri recipes, go to this Frontier Herbs page .
Cautions Stay away from ingesting pure menthol or peppermint oil. In this concentrated form, they are toxic if taken internally.
ROSEMARY MINT WINE JELLY
2 1/2 cups firmly packed fresh mint leaves 1/4 cup fresh rosemary leaves 2 cups dry white wine 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice plus additional if needed 3 1/2 cups sugar a 3-ounce pouch liquid pectin
In a food processor or blender blend together the mint, the rosemary, and 1 cup of the wine until the herbs are chopped fine and transfer the mixture to a bowl. In a small saucepan bring the remaining 1 cup wine to a boil, add it to the herb mixture, and let the herb mixture stand, covered, for 45 minutes. Strain the herb mixture through a sieve lined with several layers of rinsed and squeezed cheesecloth set over a large measuring cup, pressing hard on the solids, and add 1/4 cup of the lemon juice. (There should be exactly 2 cups liquid; if there is less add enough of the additional lemon juice to measure 2 cups liquid.) Transfer the liquid to a kettle, stir in the sugar, stirring until the mixture is combined well, and bring the mixture to a rolling boil over high heat, stirring constantly. Stir in the pectin quickly, bring the mixture again to a full rolling boil, stirring constantly, and boil it, stirring constantly, for 1 minute. Remove the kettle from the heat, skim off any foam with a large spoon, and ladle the mixture immediately into 4 sterilized 1/2-pint Mason-type jars, filling the jars to within 1/8 inch of the tops. Wipe the rims with a dampened cloth and seal the jars with the lids. Invert the jars for 5 minutes and turn them upright. (Instead of being inverted, the jars may be put in a water bath canner or on a rack set in a deep kettle. Add enough hot water to the canner or kettle to cover the jars by 1 to 2 inches and bring it to a boil. Process the jars, covered, for 5 minutes, transfer them with tongs to a rack, and let them cool completely.) Store the jars in a cool, dark place.
Makes four 1/2-pint jars.
(Gourmet: April 1990 )
About the Author Laurel Morris is a master gardener and herbalist from coastal North Carolina, specializing in use and preservation of garden produce. She writes a bi-monthly herb gardening column for Suite101.com, an internet guide.