Amazing Mints: The Versatile Plant Species That Does Everything from Entertaining your Cat to Cleaning Your Teeth
Mint plants, Lamiaceae, come in a wide variety. Some are good for making tea or jelly, freshening breath or even cleaning your house. Others act as insect repellents or are believed to have medicinal properties. The best news about mint plants is that many of them are the brown-thumb gardener’s saving grace. Once started, mint plants are amazingly hardy growers – to the point that they can almost be considered an invasive species if they get out of hand. They can be grown in moderate to poor soil, and are hardy under adverse conditions. In short, they grow like the weeds that they can become.
The three most common mint species for the home garden are peppermint, spearmint and catnip. Less common varieties include lemon mint, apple mint, chocolate peppermint and horehound. Bergamot, or horsemint, is one of the distinctive additives in Earl Grey tea. Both English and American pennyroyal are good for repelling insects, but are not considered safe for human consumption.
Something you might not know about mints or the mint family is that many savory herbs are members. This includes sage, basil, oregano, savory, hyssop and rosemary. Not all are as easy to grow as peppermint, spearmint and catnip, but they are valued members of an herb gardener’s repertoire.
With such a wide variety of plants that fall into this family – over 200 genera and 6,000 species – it is a good idea to consider some of the basic characteristics of mints. They have square stems, opposite leaves, tiny flowers and contain volatile oils. When crushed or rubbed, they release a strong scent – usually a pleasing one. They tolerate poor soil, and can be grown in full sun or partial shade – but not deep shade. Most require a lot of water to get started, and some species need water to maintain growth throughout the summer. Almost all will die back during cold winter months – sage is probably a notable exception, as its woody stems will remain through the winter. However, if the weather is truly cold, it will drop its leaves.
My favorite kinds of mint
Mints propagate by sending out runners or by dropping seeds. Different species do grow differently. Those which primarily propagate from seeds drop tiny seeds from their small blossoms. Small or not, bees love those blossoms and mint plants can be a valuable addition to a bee garden.
With all of that said, here are a few of my favorite kinds of mint:
Peppermint (menthe piperita): This is the mint that is used to make peppermint candy, certain kinds of tea, and is used in cough syrup. It is difficult to start from seed. The easiest way to get it started is to purchase a couple of plants and put them out in a prepared bed after all danger of frost is past. Go easy on harvesting the leaves the first season or two, and keep grass and competing weeds trimmed away from it. It doesn’t mind a moderately fertile soil, tolerates some shade, but loves water. Drought will cause the plants to die back – but they will often sprout back up when the next season’s rains begin. Peppermint will die back after frost, but will put back up shoots from the previous year’s runners. The hardest part about growing this plant is persuading it to grow where you want it to grow – not where it wants to grow. My peppermint plantation sends yearly “scouts” out into the lawn and the adjacent spearmint bed. It is a good idea to pay attention to the direction in which your peppermint is sending runners – that can tell you a lot about where it would like to grow, which might not be where you originally planted it. While it tolerates moderate soil fertility, it seems to have a “nose” for where the better nutrition is available.
Chocolate Mint (Mentha x piperita – chocolate): My very favorite mint plant. The tea from this tastes like a liquid peppermint patty – add sugar and creamer for a smooth, delicious hot drink or ice it plain for the best summer refreshment ever. Chocolate mint grows a lot like regular peppermint, only maybe even better. This little guy is a healthy and aggressive grower, so don’t plant it near your neighbor’s fence – unless they like it, too. Oh, and one more thing: don’t plant it too near your regular peppermint, because they will cross-pollinate. They will both still taste good, but they won’t be quite the same as your original plants.
Spearmint (Mentha spicata): Spearmint can be easily grown from seed – and boy, does it love to grow! The plants grown to be two or three feet tall, and put on tiny purple blooms in late summer. To reseed your spearmint bed, just shake the bloom pods after they have matured over the area where you want more spearmint next year. Spearmint will grow from root stock, but it doesn’t go on a wilderness hike the way peppermint is likely to do. It is a little more drought tolerant than peppermint, and is easier to contain. It doesn’t have the hot, peppermint oil in as great a quantity, but it still makes a tasty tea. It lends itself very well to cooling summer drinks served over ice, and combines well with peppermint for winter refreshment.
Catnip (Nepeta catara): Catnip will put all the other mints to shame when it comes to growth vigor and ability to spread. It also does a fine job of attracting all the neighborhood felines to your garden area. For these reasons, plant it well away from your main garden or keep it in a capacious tub or pot. It has deep, wide spreading roots, and can grow to a height of three feet or more. The dried plants will retain their attractiveness to your kitty companion for two years or more. Be careful where you store it, because cats love it well enough to raid your catnip stash for themselves. Food-grade catnip (the stuff you grow in your garden as opposed to the stuff sold in a pet store) can be used to make tea. My personal opinion on catnip tea is that it has a flavor somewhere between moldy hay and old socks, but it seems to sooth my headaches and upset tummy. Rodale’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Herbs says that the traditional folk remedies that recommend it for various ills might have some validity since it has some of the same chemicals that are present in valerian – but in a more moderate amount. With some other mints added to the mix, catnip tea is tolerable – some people might even like it.
These are only a few of the many varieties of mint that are available to grow in your garden. Lemon mint, apple mint and orange mint are similar in growth and habit to spearmint and catnip. Each has its own subtle flavor and can be welcome variations on your ice tea choices for summer beverages. They are also great for planting in moderately marshy places to help slow down erosion and provide soil cover. If you do not want them to spread – because they will take over, given half a chance – plant your mint varieties in tubs that are at least 18 inches deep, and have good drainage. Keep well-watered, and fertilize occasionally with compost tea.
Mints have been grown and used in gardens and apothecaries since the days of the Roman Empire, and possibly before. Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Herbs entry under “Catnip” says: “Though colonies of people did not always take root, the catnip usually did.” That same quote could be considered to be true for many of the species of mint.
I hope you have enjoyed reading this short introduction to the Mint plant family. Mints are easy to grow, easy to harvest and can be used in a wide variety of edibles, from drinks to salads to deserts and candies. Mint plants can even be used as a mild astringent or cleanser, and when chewed, freshen your breath. If you’ve enjoyed this article, share it with your social media friends. If you’ve had experiences with growing or using mints, let us know. We would love to hear from you.