Mint, general (Mentha spp.)

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Mint, general (Mentha spp.)

About This Plant

The wonderful genus of Mint (Mentha spp.) consists of fewer than only 20 species, but an almost endless array of hybrids and cultivars – some sources say there are over 600 cultivars! Each varies slightly in flavor, aroma, and appearance, but there are many generalizations that can be made about Mints.  Most notable, perhaps, is that they all yield highly aromatic essential oils, giving them their unique characteristics along with the potential for medicinal use.


Generally speaking, Mint is an herbaceous perennial (though there are annuals) found in USDA zones 5 to 9. They tend to be cold hardy to -20 degrees fahrenheit and easily withstand frosts and can also tolerate high humidity. They typically grow one to three feet tall though a few grow much shorter.


Mints belong to the Lamiaceae family. The Lamiaceae family also contains the even larger genus of Slavias.  Many of our common culinary herbs also belong to this family including Basil, Sage, Rosemary, Oregano, and Thyme as well as Lavender, Skullcap, Catnip, and Horehound.


Most Mints are low-growing spreaders that send out runners, or stolons, that develop roots and shoots at their nodes.  Their stems tend to easily root wherever they touch the ground.  They are fast-growing and have a tendency to be invasive or aggressive growers.  It is often recommended that they be grown in containers or with in-ground barriers. Most will grow just fine indoors in a sunny window and most are very undemanding. 


Typically, Mints have square (four-sided) stems with leaves that grow in opposite pairs. Their leaves are often downy and have serrated margins.  Leaf shapes and colors range from green to purple to bronze.They are often creased, round to oval in shape with pointed tips.


Mint flowers are usually white, lavender, or purple in color and present in false whorls on terminal spikes.  The corolla is usually two-lipped and has four lobes with the upper lobe usually being the largest. They flower from mid-Summer to Fall.


Mints typically grow without issues from pests or disease but snails and aphids can be a problem as well a disease called mint rust.


Mints grow across the globe and will grow in most climates with the exception being the coldest regions of the globe where the ground stays frozen year-round. Ideal conditions for Mints usually include full sun to dappled shade, adequate moisture and rich soil.  They are hardy plants that will grow in a variety of conditions, but if their moisture needs are not met, they will die back to the roots and regrow once the conditions are more favorable. 


There is a long history that accompanies Mint. They have long been used in traditional medicine for fevers, headaches, and as a digestive aid, usually in the form of an herbal tea.  One of the oldest surviving medical texts in the world, the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus from 1550 BC, cites Mint as a digestive aid in soothing flatulence.  In ancient Greece and Rome, the scent of Mint was used in funerary rites and as an herb to scent the body. Pliny the Elder believed that applying Mint to the temples could rid one of headache. Galen and Dioscorides speculated that Mint could prevent women from becoming pregnant. It was also suggested in the 1500s that Mint juice was effective against poison and that the fresh herb, eaten raw, encouraged circulation of “good blood”. Powdered mint was used as an aid in killing stomach worms.  


As early as the 1620s, physicians recommended rinsing the mouth with Mint boiled in white wine and some vinegar, along with rubbing the gums with dry mint powder. Mint started becoming big business in the 1700s. American colonies were importing the product from Britain for medicinal recipes. Farmers in New York and New Jersey realized they could grow Mint, especially Peppermint, themselves. Mint became an established market in North America from the 19th century onward.  In the 1920s, the soil-borne virus Verticillium dahlia forced Mint-oil production to move from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest.


Mints hybridize very easily, and thus, there are many varieties available.  The most popular types are Spearmint, Peppermint, and Scotch Mint. Not all Mints are ground covers. There are several Mint species native to the United States.  Mint leaves can be harvested for numerous culinary and medicinal uses and can be used fresh or dried.


The name “Mint” comes from a character in Greek mythology, a nymph named Minthe or Menthe, who according to legend was Hades’ girlfriend.  Hades’ wife, Persephone, became jealous of her and turned her into a ground-clinging plant.  Hades could not turn her back into a nymph, but did give her the ability to sweeten the air when her leaves and stems were crushed. 


The essential oils of Mint are antiseptic and can be toxic in high doses.  It should be avoided by pregnant women and must not be given, or placed next to the face of babies and young children due to the potential for breathing difficulties associated with menthol.


Mint seeds can be started indoors in the spring three to four weeks before the last expected frost or they can be started outside in early Spring.  Seeds should be sown ¼” to ½” deep. The seeds can be slow to germinate.  It’s important to note that some Mints are sterile hybrids that do not produce seeds, and of those that do, since they often are hybrids, the seeds do not always grow true to the parent. Cuttings, division, and layering are often better alternatives to sowing seeds.  Stem cuttings can be rooted in water or you can cut a runner into sections several inches long, place the cuttings in moist, sterile growers mix and set them in a sunny spot to root.  Plants can also be divided by slicing the rootballs in half with a spade.  New divisions should be started in cool, not hot weather.


Mint starts can be planted out two or more weeks after the last frost in the Spring.  Consider growing Mint in containers or in bottomless containers that are at least 12” deep set into the ground to keep the roots and stems from running into other parts of the garden. Seedlings should be spaced 12-18” apart. 


Mint is not difficult to grow. It does fine in average garden soil and will spread rapidly in sun to partial or filtered shade.  Mint tends to tolerate full sun but it’s best to avoid hot, direct sun. Ideal conditions include loamy and moist but well-drained soil.  It’s not recommended to fertilize or to add much compost to the soil where mint grows because high fertility makes Mint more susceptible to rust.  It is also recommended to not plant Mint near your regular garden beds. It tends to be better placed in a neglected corner of your yard. 


The sharp fragrance of Mint repels insect pests and the flowers attract beneficial insects. It is a known squirrel repellant.  The smell of mint will repel houseflies, cabbage moths, ants, aphids, squash bugs, and fleas. It is said to benefit the vigor and flavor of Cabbage and Tomatoes as well as be a good companion plant for Asparagus, Carrots, Celery, Cucumbers, Onions, Parsley and Peppers. Keep in mind that if left unchecked it can be invasive, so take appropriate measures if companion planting with Mint such as planting in pots and setting the pots near the plants you hope to protect.  Place saucers under the pots so the roots do not escape.  


Mint can be pinched back in order to promote more fuller growth. The top half of the plant can be pruned back in the late Spring and mid-Summer.  Woody stems can be cut back to encourage succulent growth.  Most Mints should be cut back to the ground occasionally to encourage fresh new leaves and discourage woody, leggy stems.  Allowing a Mint to flower will decrease the oil content of the leaves.  Removing the flowers will also prevent cross-pollination.  


Mint can be harvested throughout the growing season by picking the leaves and sprigs as you need them. Cut the top leaves and tip of branches or pinch off individual leaves for use. Cutting away the flower stalks before they bloom will result in a sweeter tasting Mint.  The entire plant can be cut down to two to three inches above the soil at midseason and it will regrow fresh plant material for harvesting. For drying, entire stalks can be cut to within a few inches above the ground on a dry day after the dew has disappeared and before the hot sun has taken any oil from the leaves. Dry stems upside down in a warm, shady place for two to five days and then strip the dried leaves from the stems and store in an airtight jar.  Mint is great at holding its fragrance and flavor when dried.  Leaves can also be frozen in a plastic bag or frozen in ice cubes for later use. 


Seed Harvest

As mentioned above, most Mints will not grow from seed true to the parent and are better propagated by cuttings or division.  If wishing to harvest seed however, simply allow the flower stalks to mature on the plant, cut and hang in a warm, shady place to finish drying. SImply rub the flower heads between your fingers, catching the crumbling plant material in a container then separate the chaff. 

Plant Uses

  • Medicinal
  • Culinary
  • Mouth care
  • Pest repellent
  • Cosmetics

Culinary Uses

Mint is a well-loved herb in the kitchen, having a sweet, slightly hot flavor with a cool aftertaste.  It has a strong menthol aroma and is used as a flavoring in cuisines worldwide.  It is used fresh or dried in salads and tabouli.  It is considered particularly good with lamb and peas.  It is popular in Anatolia and the Middle East.  Spearmint is the type used for most savory dishes as it’s less overpowering than other Mints such as Peppermint which has a stronger menthol aroma.  Mint is used in teas and cold drinks, with vegetable and pasta dishes. Try adding a sprig of Mint to your lemonade or even to just a glass of ice water.  A tablespoon of minced mint can be added to cooked rice just before serving.  It goes well in soups and sauces and in creamy vegetable dishes. Mint complements Cilantro, Lemon Verbena, Oregano, and Rosemary. 

Medicinal Uses

Mint has a long history of use for a number of health complaints.  They are most known for their soothing effect on digestive complaints. Mint is also used to freshen breath and whiten teeth. 


Mints are native to every continent except Central and South America and Antarctica.


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