We’re going to be celebrating herbs in our blog this season, taking a deep dive into some of the most versatile. We’ll explore their history, talk about how they can be used, and teach you how to grow them.
We’ll start off with a look at one of the most versatile herbs there is – and one of the easiest to grow. In fact, mint is so easy that the biggest challenge for gardeners isn’t growing it, it’s containing it. Some mints are so aggressive that they’re considered to be invasive species, particularly in areas with longer growing seasons than ours.
Even here, mint can quickly get out of hand. The best way to avoid that happening is to grow it in a container. If you’d like to have it in the garden, you can sink a pot into the ground and grow the mint inside it so that the roots can’t escape.
Scientists have identified between 13 and 18 different species of mint growing in the wild around the world (there’s debate about whether some of them should be classed as subspecies). From those native plants, gardeners and plant breeders have developed thousands of varieties of mint, choosing for flavour, aroma, colour, growth type, soil preference, sunshine needs, and more. One seed company alone might have fifty or more different mints!
So how do you choose what mints to grow? The best way is to visit a grower or another gardener, and sniff. Mints don’t grow well from seed. In fact, many hybrids don’t produce seed at all, or are sterile, so you’ll almost always be starting mint from cuttings or seedlings. If you find a plant you like at someone’s garden, just ask if you can take a cutting. Put it in a pot, water well and watch it grow.
Many of us have multiple mints in our garden, with different uses for each. You might have one mint for tea, another for drying, and another for salads. There are mints that go well with lamb, or for making mint jelly, mints with medicinal uses and mints for perfumes. You may even want to plant some in a pathway, just to enjoy the delicious aroma as you walk on them.
Peppermint is a great place to start on your journey with mint. Settlers took cuttings of peppermint with them everywhere, treasuring not only its flavour but its medicinal uses. There’s a reason why we have menthol cough drops and after dinner mints: peppermint is an excellent digestive aid, and a natural decongestant.
If you’re going to use peppermint – or any other herb – in a medicinal fashion, please exercise caution. Plant-based medicines can be powerful and can have unintended effects if taken in concentrated oils or in high doses. Peppermint, for example, can lower blood sugar and blood pressure – which is great news, but it can cause problems if you’re already on blood thinners or being treated for diabetes. Large doses of peppermint oil can be fatal to infants and may also worsen gallstones.
But in normal quantities, peppermint is delightful. Try it as an after-dinner tea and enjoy its digestive-soothing effects. Or mix it with green tea and sugar, in classic Moroccan fashion – delicious hot or cold.
Spearmint has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years, with poultices made from spearmint being used to treat wounds, skin lesions, and insect bites. In more recent times, researchers have confirmed what traditional healers knew all along: spearmint, like many other mints, has antibacterial and antimicrobial properties.
It’s also a powerful insecticide, known to be effective against mosquito larvae and adult moths, as well as pests that infect grain crops. There’s still debate about the best way to use it, but certainly having a few pots of spearmint around won’t do any harm and may even keep some of the mosquitoes away. Some people swear that spraying spearmint oil on their skin, or even dabbing a few drops behind the ears, keeps mosquitoes away.
Spearmint dries well, but it’s best to pick it before it flowers – the potency drops quite a bit after flowering. Just cut whole stems and hang them upside down to dry.
This is also the mint you want for your mint juleps and mojitos.
Baths, sachets, and more
Sixteenth century botanist John Gerard wrote that the smell of mint “rejoice the heart of man,” and that’s still true today. Try adding some fresh mint leaves to your bath. Make sachets to keep in your linen closet, to enjoy a delightful waft as you climb into a newly made bed at night. Have a pot of mint growing right beside the door, so that you brush against it and release the aroma every time you enter the cottage.
This is where the sniff test really comes into play, as you find the right mints to use for aromatic purposes. A pineapple mint for the bath, perhaps, or maybe an apple, banana, or strawberry mint? How about lavender mint for sachets, and a pot of peppery Corsican mint on a bathroom window. Maybe a low-growing ground cover like creeping pennyroyal (which is a variety of mint) on the path, so that you release scent as you stroll?
The same goes for culinary mints. A few fresh mint leaves in a salad is delightful, so why not experiment with different kinds of mint? Once you start exploring the world of mints, you’ll find yourself adding more and more of them.
If you’d like to get started this year, have us add a few mints to your landscape this year. We can introduce you to some of our favourites.