Mint is a useful and often overlooked culinary herb
Rats dislike peppermint so much that medieval rat catchers used it as a weapon. The battle plan: Soak rags in oil of peppermint and stuff the rags into all but a few of the resident rats’ holes. Then, turn ferrets loose on the rats, driving the varmints out the remaining open holes and into bags, to be drowned.
In contrast to rats, most humans find all things minty a delight. Dessert doesn’t get much fancier than an artful combination of chocolate and mint. And in even the most humble country cottage, a tired body can find comfort in a cup of peppermint tea, simply brewed from home-saved leaves.
We do ourselves a favor when we opt to "look after" a few mints, rather than banish them completely from our gardens.
But a sprig can quickly turn into a forest, and there’s the rub. In 1629, John Parkinson was moved to lament this fact in his great book, A Garden of Pleasant Flowers. “The rootes runne creeping in the ground,” he warned, “and as the rest, will hardly be cleared out of a garden being once therein.”
Maude Grieve, whose 1931 book A Modern Herbal gives us the rat tale, noted mint was universally esteemed by the ancients despite its invasive habits. Her study of old tomes found references to mint’s medicinal and culinary properties as far back as Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist who lived from 23 to 79 a.d. A practical Englishwoman, Grieve passed on to us mint’s medicinal uses, mostly associated with digestion — colic, stomach cramps, nausea and the like — as well as a few culinary possibilities. Her recipes include mint cake “made with flour and drippings or lard, flavoured with sugar and chopped fresh mint and rolled out thin.”
E.A. Bowles, for whom ‘Bowles Variety’ mint is named, preferred that hairy hybrid’s flavor in his mint sauce, according to a 1974 Royal Horticultural Society handbook. In one of his own books, My Garden in Summer, Bowles shared a few pearls of mint wisdom, including a note on the not-so-culinary mint family member Mentha pulegium, which is pennyroyal. Of it, Bowles wrote, “It is rather a rampageous, greedy plant, and needs looking after when near choicer neighbours, but its whorls of lavender-blue flowers are worth having.”
We do ourselves a favor when we opt to “look after” a few mints, rather than banish them completely from our gardens. Not everyone has the space to take them on, but mints can be grown very satisfactorily in good-sized, thick-walled pots with saucers under them to keep the roots in tow, as long as the plants are regularly repotted, to help them remain vigorous.
Down through time, the primary culinary garden mints have been spearmint (Mentha spicata), peppermint (M. ¥piperita) and applemint (M. suaveolens), in that order. Spearmint has bright-green leaves and grows about 21/2 feet tall. Like all mints, it has square stems and in this case, they are green tinged with red.
Peppermint has dark-green leaves and reddish purple stems, and grows about 3 feet tall. Applemint, the biggest of the three, has hairy green leaves and stems and can grow as high as 4 feet tall. A multitude of hybrids (‘Bowles’ is spearmint and applemint) also are available, including a chocolate peppermint, and the three oldies will mix it up in the garden on their own, too. But true plants of peppermint, spearmint or applemint will produce high-quality sensory responses all by themselves. All are lovely, fragrant and as delightful in fresh-cut bouquets as they are fresh in food or dried for tea.
To be surest of your plants’ identities, choose reputable nurseries selling mints propagated from cuttings. Seeds are uniformly reported by authoritative sources to be mislabeled more often than not, or in best-case situations, to give disappointing results.
Pick an out-of-the-way nook for your mint patch — nowhere near your garden proper — and work up the soil properly. Grieve advises “a damp spot in sun to part shade”; Steven Foster, in his 1997 book Herbal Renaissance (Gibbs Smith), suggests full sun, good drainage and a neutral to slightly alkaline soil pH.
Put the plants in shallow trenches, spacing them about 6 inches apart in rows 8 inches apart. Cover the roots with 2 inches of soil and water well; they’ll soon fill in the blanks. Grieve also urges early spring and fall dressings with well-aged manure, and keep your scissors or mower handy. Mints look best if harvested regularly. When you have an abundance of fresh mint, dry the leaves to make tea, hot or iced, throughout the year. Mint is irreplaceable in the South’s famous mint juleps, and mint tea makes a lovely base for homemade lemonade, too.
In cooking with your crop, fresh is always best. Use fresh mint with carrots, peas, new potatoes and lamb, with cabbage for a Welsh twist, or in such Middle Eastern dishes as tabouleh. Minty desserts are tempting, too. Try mint sorbet, or mint in your brownie batter or sugar cookie dough. Line a pretty bowl with whole fresh mint leaves and fill it with strawberries or melon balls. Use a little or a lot; mint’s easy that way, an unusual trait among herbs.
To be surest of your plants' identites, choose reputable nurseries selling mint propagated from cuttings.
Nancy Smith, senior editor of Mother Earth News magazine, writes and gardens from her home in Leavenworth County, Kansas.
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