According to Barbara Perry Lawton, author of Mints, A Family of Herbs and Ornamentals (Timber Press, 2002), the mint family, Lamiaceae or Labiatae, includes horehound (Marrubium vulgare), lavender (Lavandula spp.), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), oregano (Origanum vulgare), rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis), sage (Salvia officinalis), sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), thyme (Thymus spp.) and several others. All the plants in the mint family are referred to as mints, while the term “true mints” describes only those belonging to the Mentha genus.
The best known of the mints is spearmint (Mentha spicata). It has a strong scent and flavor and is a recognizable culinary seasoning herb around the world. The plants can grow to 36 inches tall, and are hardy to Zone 5; they are best in full sun (where the plant develops its best flavor) but will grow in partial shade. Used in lemonades, iced teas, mint juleps, salads, sauces, and as a flavoring for gums, candies and upset-stomach remedies, mint is a universal herb. During Prohibition, spearmint was so closely associated with mint juleps that mint beds in Kentucky and several other Southern states were destroyed.
Peppermint is the second most used and recognizable of the mints. One of my favorites is chocolate mint (Mentha ×piperita ‘Chocolate’), which has a slight and delicious flavor of chocolate, especially when the leaves are candied. Peppermint is used in candies, gums and other foods and often is combined with spearmint for a more complex flavor. Like many of the mints, peppermint seldom comes true from seed and some sources claim that true peppermint never sets seed at all.
Contributing editor Jim Long lives and gardens in the Ozark Mountains.
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