Many of us will have fond memories of being sent into the garden as children to pick a few leaves of this plant to make Mint sauce to accompany the Sunday roast – it if were a Lamb joint, that is – or to go with peas, or new potatoes. Mint is one of those essential English herbs which, along with Rosemary and Parsley, have been fixtures in herb gardens for centuries.
The botanical name for the true Mint is Mentha, which is derived from the Greek word minthe. No-one knows the origin of the word minthe, it seems to be from a pre-Greek language which no longer exists, but as soon as you say it out loud, no matter how you pronounce it, you can easily see how it has become anglicised into “minty” and into “menthol”, the name for the active chemical found in Mentha plants.
Spearmint or Peppermint?
There are many different species of Mentha – of the 34 plants listed under “Mint” in our Plant Finder, 18 of them are species of Mentha – but the ones that everyone knows are the dynamic duo of Spearmint and Peppermint.
They are not the same thing: the original Mint, if you can call it that, was Spearmint, the botanical name of which is Mentha spicata. A natural hybrid arose between Mentha spicata and Mentha aquatica (water mint), which was named Mentha × piperita and it has become known as Peppermint. It has been with us for a long time, as it was one of the thousands of plants whose botanical names were formalised by dear Mr Linneaus back in the mid 1700s. At that time, he thought it was a species, but it is now known to be a hybrid, and to be sterile: it does not produce seeds, and can only spread vegetatively, by extending its rhizomes. So if you are ever offered seeds of a Peppermint plant, don't be fooled!
For our purposes, the difference between them is that Spearmint has a sharper flavour and a more intense aroma, while Peppermint tends to be more delicate and sweet. This usually means that the stronger-flavoured Spearmint is used for cooking with meats and sauces, whereas Peppermint is more appropriate for sweets, ices and desserts.
As well as these two, you can now buy quite a variety of plants which claim to be different flavours of Mint: they range from the perfectly sensible Apple mint (Mentha suaveolens), also known as Pineapple mint (which supposedly dissuades mosquitoes); Orange mint (M. citrata, confusingly also called Bergamot mint, Eau-de-cologne mint, Horsemint, Lemon mint, Lime mint, Orange mint, and Pineapple mint which implies a certain confusion in the minds – or noses – of those responsible for naming it), Licorice mint (Agastache rugosa) and Ginger mint (Mentha × gentilis), and even includes a plant marketed as Chocolate mint: but that is Mentha × piperita, and the “chocolate” part might be more in the mind of a marketing manager than in the scent of the actual plant.
What is Mint used for?
Clearly the most popular use is culinary, being used with vinegar to make Mint sauce to accompany meat, but also in sweets, in cold drinks and in aromatherapy, in health food products, toothpastes, mouthwashes, air fresheners, insecticide, and even in cosmetics.
Over the centuries, Mint has been used medicinally to cure just about everything from sore throats to stomach upsets, taking in headaches, backache, neck pains, cramps, menstrual problems, chest pains, heart palpitations, insect bites, lice, altitude sickness and to prevent cataracts, although there is no medical evidence whatsoever for that last one.
Peppermint contains more, compared to Spearmint, of the chemical menthol, which affects the nerve endings in our mouths and makes our brains think the mouth is cooler than it really is. This is why minty beverages are great for hot days, and why so many chewy mints have the word “cool” or “fresh” in their advertising material: which is a little odd when you think that “pepper” is usually hot!
How to grow Mint
Most gardeners already know that all Mints are terrible spreaders, and the standard advice is to plant them in a pot then sink that pot into the ground in your herb garden, rather than planting directly into the soil, to try and contain them. However, they are determined escapologists and will find their way though the drainage holes to freedom as soon as you look away. They have even been known to take advantage of the tiniest crack in a buried porcelain sink: forcing their way through the crack and eventually breaking the sink.
A better way to manage Mints is to allocate them an area then, when they get too close to the edge, to loosen the soil all around the outside fringe of each plant, and pull up the roots in that area. This keeps the plant to a small footprint and allows you to control the spread.
Alternatively, every year or two you can propagate each plant by digging up and potting on a couple of small sections with roots, then, once they are well rooted, remove the old plant completely and replace with one of your fresh new ones.
Less well known is the fact that most Mints prefer damp, semi-shaded conditions: for many of them, their natural habitat is wet woodlands, ditches, waterside locations and marshes: so if you grow them in containers on a sunny patio, place the pot underneath some overhanging foliage, and make sure that you keep them well watered.
Most Mints are perennial, and many of them will grow all year round, making them a very obliging addition to the herb garden.
To get the best from these plants, cut the tops off, or shear over the plants every couple of weeks through the summer, to produce a fresh flush of leaves and to prevent flowering: once they flower, the amount of essential oils in the leaves reduces dramatically. So, as with most of our herbs, they work best if they are picked every couple of days which keeps them bushy, prevents flowering, and produces tender new leaves for our consumption.
Mint in popular culture
The phrase “in mint condition” has nothing to do with the plant, but began life as a descriptive term for coins: when they are first made they are perfect, with no scratches or tarnish, no wear from use or age, so a coin that looked as though it was straight off the mint (the “mint” being the machinery used to produce them), was said to be in mint condition.
Mint green, however, is a colour we would all recognise, which is odd as it is a fresh, light, pale green, whereas most Mint plants actually have quite deep green leaves.
And then of course there is a whole range of minty sweets!
How do you know it's a Mint?
Mints are members of the Lamiaceae or Dead-Nettle family, members of which all have square stems, opposite leaves, and flowers held close to the stems, at the leaf junctions. This often gives the appearance of flowers being held in a succession of pom-poms up the stem.
They are herbaceous perennials, meaning that they die down in autumn and spring up again the next year, although many of the old-fashioned Mints will grow all year round.
Generally, they have matte green leaves with toothed margins, and the leaves end in a distinct point, hence the common name of the “original” Mint, Spearmint.
In most cases, your nose can tell you it's a Mint: virtually all members of the Mentha genus have aromatic or scented leaves, although you might need to bruise or break a leaf to release the scent, especially on colder days.
So what plants do we also call Mint?
There are half a dozen species of Prostanthera which are known as Round-leaved mint bush, or Australian Mint bush, a group of mostly evergreen shrubs that would be worth growing for the flowers alone, which are held in dense spikes above the highly aromatic foliage.
Another group is the genus Plectranthus, including Plectranthus ‘Cape Angels’ which is intriguingly known as Soup mint. It is a tender, trailing conservatory plant with no justification for the mint part at all, other than simply being in the Lamiaceae family. Looking at the beautiful blossoms, Spur flower is a much better name!
Both Agastache rugosa and A. foeniculum are known as Korean mint or Indian mint, and although their flowers are not fragrant, the leaves are aromatic, although not necessarily smelling of mint. These plants have been used in Chinese medicine for centuries.
Another aromatic but not particularly minty plant is Colquhounia coccinea, the Himalayan mint plant: it is not fully hardy in the UK, but would be well worth trying for the deep scarlet flowers, held in leafy spikes above the aromatic foliage, looking rather like a red-flowered Jerusalem Sage (Phlomis fruticosa).
Tanacetum balsamita is called Mint geranium but unlike Elsholtzia stauntonii (Mint bush), and Monarda citriodora (Lemon mint) it is not even in the Lamiaceae family, it's in Asteraceae. However, the leaves are said to contain the compound carvone, which is what gives Spearmint leaves their smell.
And finally there a few plants which are Mint in name only: they include Lonicera japonica ‘Mint Crisp’, Heuchera ‘Mint Frost’ and the cos lettuce Lactuca sativa ‘Crisp Mint' Cos lettuce, which goes to prove that those marketing people will try anything to sell us more plants!