Some plants have been part of the human experience for so long that we take them completely for granted. Like the pathway in our garden or the sky overhead, mint often is overlooked, despite its role as a basic building block of an herb garden. Ordinary, common and well-used, mint rarely occurs to us as exotic.
However, if we consider its history and scope, we find that mint is anything but ordinary. Mint is found in diverse culinary cultures from Arabia, Iraq, India, Italy and Afghanistan to northern Europe and the Americas. Mint has been found in Egyptian tombs dating to 1000 b.c. and was common in ancient Japan and China. The Assyrians in what is now Iraq used mint in rituals and ancient Hebrews used mint as a strewing herb for fragrance on the floors of synagogues.
• Mint & Lettuce Salad
• Cucumber Mint Salad
• Apple Walnut Salad
• White Grape & Mint Salsa
• Minted Carrots
• Asian Pork Chops with Mint
• Herby Beer Bread
• Strawberries with Mint Cream
• Cold-Pressed Mint Tea
• Vietnamese Summer Rolls with Dipping Sauce
• Indian Grilled Chicken with Mint
• Grilled Salmon with Mint Butter
Ancient Uses For Mint Leaves
The early Greeks and Romans used spearmint as a seasoning in meat and vegetable dishes, and as a refreshing bath herb, often combined with rose petals. During the Middle Ages, dried, powdered mint was used to whiten teeth and freshen breath. As it turns out, humble mint has been one of the most widely used herbs in history.
Varieties of Mint
I recently conducted a nationwide survey of wholesale and retail plant and seed sellers to determine the 10 bestselling herbs in the country. Mint rated fourth in popularity, following basil, lavender and parsley. Nearly every gardener who starts an herb garden begins with mint, along with six or seven other herbs.
The mint family includes about 30 species, and some sources claim 500 to 600 varieties, including spearmint, peppermint, apple, orange, Spanish, Moroccan, pineapple, ginger, lemon, pennyroyal, water, chocolate—and the list goes on.
V.J. Billings of Mountain Valley Growers separates the mints into three convenient categories, which, though not scientific classifications, make it easy to divide the mints into logical classifications for the home gardener.
(1) Green mints: includes spearmint and its variations.
(2) Red mints (meaning red-stemmed): includes peppermints and their cousins basils, along with Moroccan, lime, orange bergamot, chocolate and lavender mints.
(3) Fuzzy mints: includes Egyptian, apple, pineapple and similar fuzzy-leafed variations.
Most of the plants in the mint family, including the true mints, are not native to the United States, but were introduced by Europeans. It’s common to find spearmint growing along streams or springs in many parts of the United States.
This is because pioneers moving westward often carried along a few spearmint roots to plant in springs and along streams, believing mint purified water. The sweet aroma of mint next to the cool water of a spring on a hot day was nearly as refreshing as the water itself. One of my all-time favorite mints is a spearmint I found growing next to a spring in the Ozark Mountains many years ago.
Jim Westerfield in Freeburg, Illinois, is a prolific mint hybridizer, and over the past 20 years has selected about 60 unusual mint hybrids. He has patented more than 30 of the most distinctive of these and introduced them to the gardening public.
Jim's personal favorite is the one he named ‘Jim’s Fruit Mint’, which he says has a big, robust flavor with a rich, fruity aroma.
Marilyn Westerfield, Jim’s wife and long-time chef of their bed and breakfast, said she believes his ‘Citrus Kitchen’ mint, with hints of lemon, lime and orange, is the best mint available for culinary use.
But among his mints, the one that surprised me most is ‘Italian Spice’, which has hints of oregano and marjoram. Jim says that variety reminds him of the spicy aroma of the Italian grocery store he worked in as a child. Marilyn stirs this variety into freshly cooked angel hair pasta, then adds some butter, roasted garlic and a tiny bit of cream. Jim Westerfield’s mints are available only through Richters Herbs in Canada and Fragrant Field Herbs in Illinois (see “Sources” below).
Carol Hanson at Fragrant Fields said her personal favorite is Jim’s ‘Wild Berries & Cream’ mint. My favorite of the Westerfield mints is ‘Margarita’, which has a background flavor of lime with mint.
Growing Tips For Mint
Mints seldom grow true from seed. Even if grown some distance from each other, the plants often cross and the seedlings can be some mixed-up little mints. For this reason, cuttings generally are the method of choice for propagating mint. (Learn more about propagation.)
There are, however, a few exceptions. Renee Shepherd of Renee’s Garden Seeds, a renowned international seed sleuth known for her remarkable gourmet seed mixtures, says she ran across a truly unique mint recently while traveling in Italy. An heirloom variety that comes true to seed, this mint has been in the same Italian family for many generations. “This is the first mint I have found with good flavor that comes reliably from seed,” Renee says. “Unlike most mints planted from seed, which often produce a plant that tastes like a very unpleasant, oily-flavored oregano, this one grows vigorously and tastes wonderful.” She will be releasing her new heirloom ‘Italian Mint’ in her seed catalog in 2010 (see “Sources” below).
Renee says she likes to put a couple of fresh mint leaves in the filter with the freshly ground coffee as it brews in the morning for a very pleasant cup of coffee (to which she adds a few drops of cream to enhance the minty flavor). “A few leaves in my hot chocolate tastes great, too,” she says. “And I add a couple of dried mint leaves to my sugar bowl in summer to add flavor to the sugar, for serving to guests with iced tea.”
Cooking with Mint
Experience the versatility of the herb with my mint buffet menu. An entire meal with this herb in every dish might overwhelm the palate; this menu will inspire you to customize a menu for your next gathering. As with any banquet, pick and choose the dishes that best suit your tastes.
I'm an advocate of locally grown, carefully raised food, so my ingredients primarily are based on my own garden, though the recipes retain an international flair. Once you’ve established your herb garden, you’ll have a similar mint palette from which to draw.
I virtually never use flavorings, especially mint, as it never tastes as good as the real herb. I use fresh mint leaves, just as I only use freshly squeezed lemons and real butter when I cook. If you are going to the effort of creating a dish, it’s worth making the food memorable and delightful by using the freshest, best-quality ingredients.
Sources For Mint
WHAT: only licensed U.S. source for Westerfield hybrid mints
TO FIND: (800) 635-0282; www.fragrantfields.com
Mountain Valley Growers
WHAT: growers of certified organic herbs and mints
TO FIND: (559) 338-2775; www.mountainvalleygrowers.com
Renee’s Garden Seeds
WHAT: herbs, vegetables and a new mint in 2010
TO FIND: (888) 880-7228; www.reneesgarden.com
WHAT: Canadian source for Westerfield hybrid mints
TO FIND: (905) 640-6677; www.richters.com
Contributing editor Jim Long lives and gardens in the Ozark Mountains.