What type of herb is Mint?
Mints (Mentha) are part of the Lamiaceae family and are naturalised all over the world. The general characteristics of mint is that it dies back over winter and can be picked between late spring and mid-autumn. It is a good idea to pick regularly to keep plants compact and to ensure lots of new shoots. Always pick from the top down to the next growing shoot.
The four main groups of mint are:
- Mentha spicata: Spearmint which is the quintessential mint and can be found growing around the world. The leaf flavour is warm and sweet with light menthol notes. Great with potatoes and mint sauces.
- Mentha x piperita: Peppermint has a much more pungent flavour than spearmint and is hybridised (x) between water mint, Mentha aquatica and spearmint, Mentha spicata (as mentioned in a previous blog on understanding herbs). The leaves can be used in puddings, cakes, oils, vinegars and tisanes.
- Mentha suaveolens: The leaves of this mint are hairy, they have a milder and more rounded flavour than spearmint or peppermint and are lovely for making jellies and jams as they hold their flavour when cooked.
- Mentha longifolia: These mints have long leaves and are renowned for both their flavour and for their amazing flowers, which are wonderful for bees, pollinating insects and butterflies.
Mythology & history around Mint
The name ‘Mentha’ is said to have been derived from Greek mythology. One story is that the nymph Minthe was being chatted up by Hades the God of the Underworld. His queen Sephony became jealous and turned the nymph into the plant Mint.
Another story is that Minthe was a nymph beloved by Pluto, who transformed her into a scented herb after his jealous wife took umbrage.
Mint has been cultivated for its medicinal properties since ancient times and has been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 1000 BC. Peppermint in particular is aromatic, calmative, antiseptic, antispasmodic, anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, anti-parasitic and also a stimulant. Externally, peppermint oil can be used in a massage to relieve muscular pain.
Mint has also played an important part in history; in the Bible the Pharisees collected tithes in mint, dill and cumin; Charlemagne ordered people to grow it; and the Romans brought it with them as they marched through Europe and into Britain.
How do you grow and maintain Mint
Mint generally grows well in any soil, but prefers its roots in shade with the sun on its leaves. It grows and expands by underground rhizomes. As a result, mint grows quickly and will cover the ground with runners.
As it is easier to grow than to eradicate , it is advisable to restrict the roots, either in a container or pot plunged into the ground. We sink pots of mint into Jekka's Herbetum beds. It grows best with a good supply of water, without being water-logged, and planted in areas with part-sun to shade.
When growing in pots, each year you should repot pot bound mints by upturning the container, removing the rootball and splitting it in half. Repot with the creeping rhizomes in the centre of the pot using fresh compost and give the other half to a friend (or pot elsewhere).
Jekka's top tip: Avoid growing different varieties of mint close together, whether in pots or the ground, as they can lose their individual scent and flavour.
Mint also makes an excellent companion plant as it deters pests, including whitefly, ants and mice, and the flowers attract bees, butterflies and hoverflies.
For more advice on growing and maintaining herbs, check out Jekka's How to Grow Herbs videos and ‘Jekka’s Seasonal Tips’ blog series, which includes what to do in your herb garden in early spring, late spring and autumn & winter as well as how to grow herbs indoor.
Mint as a culinary herb
Mint is a culinary delight, making either wonderful vinegars and jellies or as a tea that aids digestion. We find that drinking too much peppermint tea can be over stimulating so with our Mint Fiesta Herbal Infusion we combine peppermint with spearmint to making a soothing digestive. Mint is also great as a garnish to our new gin. Mint and chocolate are a classic combination and we have a wonderful 'After Eight' macaroon recipe for you to try. Linked below.
If you just require a straightforward garden mint growing outside the back door, and useful in all types of cooking, we suggest Mentha spicata, Spearmint.