Mint (Mentha) is a perennial herb with a unique aroma and colorful history. There are many types of mint available and it is widely grown. The leaves and stems are harvested for numerous culinary and medicinal uses. Mint can be used fresh or dried. In the garden, mint spreads rapidly in shade to part sun in average garden soil.
The name "mint" comes from a nymph named Minthe or Menthe, a character in Greek mythology who, according to legend, was Pluto's girlfriend. Pluto's wife, Persephone, became jealous and turned Minthe into a ground-clinging plant. Although Pluto was unable to change Minthe back into a nymph, he gave her the ability to sweeten the air when her leaves and stems were crushed.
Because mint is so widely available and there are so many different types, its popularity as a culinary and medicinal herb has remained throughout history.
Mint was used throughout history to treat stomach and digestion problems and to freshen breath. The dried leaves were used to whiten teeth and as a pest repellent. Mint is still used in medicine, in beauty products and as a food additive. It can be used fresh or dried in salads, as a garnish for hot or cold drinks, or as a tea. It is also used in landscaping as an attractive ground cover or potted plant.
Plants from the mint family have a unique stem structure. The stems are square and not round like most plants. Also, the leaves have jagged edges and have the unique and unmistakable mint odor when crushed. Some mints have variegated or fuzzy leaves. Some plants from the mint family are not usually considered mint, for example, catnip or horehound.
Mint grows outdoors all over the world except in the coldest regions where the ground stays frozen year-round. It prefers moist soil and some shade during the hottest part of the day in warmer climates. If moisture needs are not met, it will die back to the roots and regrow when conditions are favorable. Mint spreads aggressively and can become a pest in some gardens. It can also be grown indoors in a sunny window.
The most common types of mint that are grown for culinary and medicinal purposes are spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint, apple mint, orange mint and Swiss mint. However, there are hundreds of varieties. Mint types cross-pollinate and can make new varieties when grown close together, so there are many types that are undocumented. Not all mints are ground covers. Common mountain mint grows up to 36 inches tall and grows wild in the central and southeastern United States. Lemon mint or purple horse mint grows up to 48 inches tall and is a native mint that grows wild throughout the United States. It has a sharp citrus-like taste and smell.