Mint juleps, peppermint ice cream, sweet mint tea, grasshopper pie, and Thin Mints — the most popular Girl Scout cookie. To know the mints is to love them! Few garden herbs are as popular, despite their penchant for boldly creeping into every sphere of their habitat. So much for order and neatness in the garden.
Mentha is a strongly scented herb genus of the powerful Lamiaceae family, a vast collection of garden plants. Lamiaceae dominates the herb world and includes culinary favorites such as rosemary, summer savory, and thyme. Twenty-five species make up the genus Mentha; these are the true mints of the Lamiaceae family. Mint is their common name. Mostly perennial, the mints are characterized by their aromatic foliage and erect, square stems with pairs of oppositely arranged, toothed leaves.
Ancient physicians attributed the mints with health-giving properties and cooling effects; herbals are filled with their virtues. In The Complete Herbal (1653), English physician Nicholas Culpeper prescribed mint for 40 disorders including toothache, hiccups, and dandruff. He said spearmint (heart mint) “is a usual inhabitant in gardens, and because it seldom gives any good seed, the seed is recompensed by the plentiful increase of the root, which being once planted in a garden, will hardly be rid out again.” Mint became a symbol of welcome in many cultures. In Morocco, guests are served hot, sweet mint tea as a sign of friendship and hospitality.
Countless wild, cultivated, and hybridized mints exist. Varieties used commercially have higher concentrations of menthol, an organic compound that gives the herbs a minty flavor, distinctive aroma, and special cooling properties.
These cooling properties trick your brain into thinking items you taste, e.g., breath mints, mouthwash, and toothpaste, are icy cold. Menthol activates the protein TRPM8 in specific nerve cells in your mouth; they instantly relay a signal to the brain that decodes it as a tingly, cold sensation. It’s a biological slight-of-hand — your mouth isn’t really cold at all. Analgesic skin balms work the same way.
Mint leaves and flowering tops are crushed and distilled to obtain the essential oils that contain menthol and carvone — integral components used to manufacture foods, cosmetics, toiletries, fragrances, and cleaning products. Two important commercial mints are spearmint (M. spicata or veridis) and peppermint (M. x piperita). Black Mitcham (M. x piperata) is a primary commercial variety of peppermint dating back to 1750. (The “X” in a scientific name indicates a hybrid, not a true species.)
Spearmint is a sweet-tasting garden herb with bright-green leaves. It’s one of the world’s oldest culinary herbs, often known only as a flavoring for Life Savers and chewing gum. Menthol is present in a very small amount. Its main chemical component is carvone, used in the food, flavor, agricultural, and pharmaceutical industries. Spearmint is also synonymous with oral hygiene products. It complements beverages, fruits, and savory dishes. It’s the mint in a traditional English mint sauce for lamb, in mojitos, and in mint juleps. And for anyone now wondering, the Kentucky Derby is May 7 this year. One Kentucky chef packs an empty bourbon bottle with mint, fills it with bourbon, then seals and stores it several months until Derby Day. Recipes that call for fresh mint usually mean spearmint, sold at most markets.
True peppermint is a natural hybrid of spearmint (M. spicate) and water mint (M. aquatica). Higher in menthol than spearmint, it has a warm, pungent taste with a cooling aftertaste. The flavor, remindful of candy canes, is used for commercial confectionery and sweets. Home cooks use peppermint extract in baking. In the Hearst Medical Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian medical writing, peppermint is used to treat edema, rhinitis, and indigestion. Hot peppermint tea is a good digestive, especially after a rich meal. Peppermint has antiseptic, decongestant, and analgesic uses. Commercial production began in 1750 at Mitchem, Surry, England. The ancient Romans introduced mint to Britain; they added the dried herb to condiments and cheese dishes.
There’s an old saying that “a little mint added to foods make spirits soar; too much and one might die of happiness.” Fresh mint is heavenly but the dried herb has important uses too. Dried mint is commonly used in Greek cooking. Lebanese cooks combine fresh and dried mint in recipes. Fresh mint can be air-dried or microwaved between paper towels in 30-second intervals; crush leaves before adding to foods.
Mint is the quintessential warm weather herb — refreshing, stimulating, and cooling. Use in soups, salads, jellies, condiments, pesto, and ice creams. Mint loves vegetables: new potatoes, green peas, carrots, zucchini, cucumbers, and eggplant. Use it to flavor sugar, simple syrup, and vinegar. Add mint to fruit mixtures or to pitchers of iced water. Freeze the leaves in ice cube trays or nibble on a few as a breath freshener.
Garden mints grow profusely — even without a word of encouragement. They spread by underground rhizomes while the foliage goes wherever it wants to, climbing across rocks, borders, and other obstacles. Curtail mint’s wild ways in a patio planter or a large, bottomless bucket sunk into the ground; leave 3 to 4 inches of rim above the soil. Fabric grow bags make excellent mint planters; the handles allow it to be moved around the patio or garden.
Mint’s potency reaches its peak just before flowers appear; harvest regularly to promote bushier growth. Leave a few blooms for beneficial pollinators. Mint thrives in moist, well-drained soil with partial shade and will endure even if somewhat neglected. Propagate cuttings by rooting them in water. Mint is the fragrant gift that keeps on giving — and forgiving!