When gardeners spot mint plants, they tend to roll their eyes and exclaim, “That’s almost a weed. It practically takes over your garden.” Almost and practically, is not the same thing as “is” and “completely.” It’s a Canadian paradox that any plant that digs its toes into our soil with delight and hangs tough through months of frozen firma, only to explode with green growth come spring, is sneered at by the gardening crowd. We seem to prefer expending effort into cultivating tea roses or some such delicacy that shrieks and withers at the first whiff of frost, never to be seen from again. Shame on us! To garden – or for that matter to live – in Canada, you have to possess fortitude, strength of character and resilience. You have to be tough.
We should celebrate plants that share our qualities, instead of lifting our noses in disdain. And if ever there was an herb that invited you drop your nose into its leaves, mint is the one. If it spreads itself about, well, lucky you! The uses for mint, both medicinal and culinary, will make you glad to have such a robust plant. If you are still concerned about it choking out your temporary tea roses, you might consider planting mint in a deep container buried in the ground with the rim sticking out. You could also plant it along the side of a building or fence that borders onto your lawn, or perhaps around a tree. This leaves your mint patch with nowhere to go except into your lawn, where you will revel in its meandering every time you mow. The puff of peppermint that wafts about from beneath the blades on a summer afternoon makes mowing an almost welcome chore and is all it takes to keep the plant from becoming invasive. Plus it eliminates the tiresome chore of whippersnipping and leaves your lawn’s edges in mint condition.
The best mint for culinary use is Spearmint Mentha spicata. It’s excellent with carrots, peas and potatoes and for making mint sauces or jellies. Another good culinary variety is English Mint – or Mentha spicata cv. This variety of spearmint is the one often used in mint juleps. Jim Westerfield, an inn keeper from Illinois, breeds new mints at the speed of bunnies. Jim and his wife Marilyn run a bed-and-breakfast inn called “Westerfield House” in Freeburg, Illinois (near St. Louis). Their inn is renowned for its gourmet luncheon and dinner events, but it’s what’s out back that intrigues me. Dubbed “Mintopia” their back yard has been the breeding grounds for mints with such tantalizing names as Candied Fruit, Berries and Cream, Sweet Pear and Italian Spice. Jim describes his Millennium Mint Mentha ‘Clarissa’s Millennium’ as a ‘feminine child of nature.’ This Zone 6 -9 mint features soft foliage and profuse lavender flowers that lend themselves perfectly to hanging baskets. Note: keeping mints in a basket is another way to keep them from taking over your garden. Jim makes his home in the States, but sells his mints exclusively to Richters in Goodwood, Ontario. Check out his amazing selection online at www.Richters.com or phone Richters for a catalogue at 1-905-640-6677.
Mojito mint Mentha x villosa (M. nemorosa) is another variety worth mentioning. This is the mint from which the famous Mojito cocktail borrows its name. It was a daily favourite of Ernest Hemingway and the choice of James Bond in the movie Die Another Day. A real Mojito can only be made with this mint. A native of Cuba, it only became available in North America in 2006 thanks to the efforts of Canada’s own Catherine Nasmith. The Mojito mint is also available through Richters.
My personal favourite? Ahem. Well, I feel like the person at the Big Scoop Ice Cream Shoppe who surveys the rainbow of flavours and says, “Make mine vanilla – no sprinkles” but I have to admit that my favourite is simply Mentha x piperita; the source of true peppermint used for making candies. It smells great and makes a wonderful sipping tea, especially after indulging in a heavy meal. By the time you finish your cup of peppermint tea, I guarantee your indigestion will be gone or your money back. And it tastes delicious, unlike the chalky chemical crap you shell out the real bucks for. Peppermint tea is also a natural and effective cure for headaches. Caution: Peppermint is very potent and should never be given to infants or small children.
Mint’s family tree is enormous. If they had a family reunion, I sure wouldn’t want to be in charge of the potato salad. And not just because I hate peeling eggs and potatoes and it would take 756 bathtub loads to feed them all. The worst part would be that I like to put mint in my potato salad and that would be dangerously akin to cannibalism. But I digress. Catnip, Creeping Charlie, Heal-all, Horehound, Pennyroyal, Bee Balm, Basil, Thyme, Wild Marjoram (also known as Wild Oregano), are just a few members of the mint family.
As big as the mint family is, it is also one of the easiest species to identify. All mints have three features in common.
- They’re all squares. Members of the mint family all have square stems which can be easily discovered by rolling the stem between your fingers so you can feel the four flat sides meeting at right angles. Doing this with your eyes closed while murmuring, “Yes, yes, a member of the Labiaceae family if I’m not mistaken” is sure to impress your friends.
- Opposites attract. Each pair of leaves emerge side by side but on opposite sides of the stem.
- They’ll give you lip. All mint blossoms produce “lipped” flowers shaped like open mouths. The upper and lower lips vary in size depending on the species. The Latin name for the mint family Labiaceae translates quite simply to “lipped”.
Garden Care: Mint is a moisture lover, prefers full to dappled sun and revels in rich, loose soil, but will grow under pretty much any condition. However, it will need to be renewed every few years as the centre becomes tough and woody and eventually dies out. Simply dig up the plant, choose a few rootlets and replant in a different spot since spending four to five years in the same location will make your mint vulnerable to rust disease. Share leftover rootlets with any lucky neighbours who have failed to lock their garden gates.
Propagation – Never start your mints from seeds! Seed varieties produce inferior plants with very disappointing flavour and scent. The “real” mints are always propagated by either cuttings or division.
Harvesting: Often you can get two harvests or more per season. Cut the plant off approximately 10 cm (4 inches) from the ground. Mint is at its most aromatic just before it flowers. The leaves can be dried, frozen or preserved in oil or vinegar depending on what you will be using them for.
Garden Gossip: In Greek mythology the nymph Minthe caught the eye of Hades, god of the Underworld. The two giggled it up together until their flirtatious encounter so enraged Hades wife, she turned Minthe into a plant that still refuses to recognize boundaries! Mint tea is the national drink of Morocco.
A Few Good Recipes:
PEPPERMINT BROWNIES Heat to a simmer the liquid portion (usually water or milk) of your favourite brownie recipe. Remove from heat, stir in 250 ml (1 cup) of chopped fresh peppermint leaves, cover and steep 10 minutes. Uncover, let cool, then add to the rest of the mix and bake. Strain out the leaves or leave them in as you prefer. Enjoy!
MINT SAUCE Simply chop mint (spearmint or English mint are best) into vinegar and mix with sugar and a little warm water and voila! Mint sauce! Goes well with roast lamb.
PEPPERMINT FOOT BATH (perfect reward for the Weekend Weed Warrior) 2 Litres (8 Cups) Water 2 Litres (8 Cups) Fresh Peppermint Bring water to a boil in a large pot then turn off heat. Add fresh peppermint then cover with lid; steeping for 15 minutes. Pour into a foot basin and add warm or cool water to adjust temperature, stick your feet in and relax! This is a good time to indulge in a peppermint brownie and cup of peppermint tea as well.