Everything you ever wanted to know about mint.
Mint breeder Jim Westerfield extends the boundaries of common notions regarding mints.
Freeburg, Illinois — Jim Westerfield’s garden is a celebration of the remarkable variety found in the mint family. On one side of his extensive garden, you’ll see a bed of mints ranging from tiny to compact; in the other direction, you’ll find plants the size of a home-landscape shrub. “I didn’t realize mints bloomed so lavishly,” one guest commented recently as she looked over the garden where Jim has been hard at work testing and breeding minty-fresh hybrids.
Diversity is the name of the game here where some of Jim’s plants bloom with light purple flowers, others with pink or lavender blooms. Some of the mints feature large, deep-green leaves, while others’ tiny leaves reflect the lighter side of green. Some plants are near-miniatures and others — the show mints — are assertive and robust. These show mints have been brought into production, or are about to be, through Jim’s extensive crossbreeding program.
Magnificent Mint Experiments
Jim and his wife, Marilyn, ran a bed and breakfast near Freeburg for many years. Marilyn’s lunches and dinners, often at holiday time and for special events for groups, were notable and highly innovative. Luncheons and dinners included Jim’s program about antique furniture for the guests, with a tour of the herb gardens outside the dining room. Over time, Jim began hybridizing mints and pollinating his mint collection with other mints. Eventually, some new and exciting hybrids began to emerge.
Anyone who propagates plants knows that mints freely hybridize themselves. That freely hybridizing spirit can be annoying if you aren’t intending on producing a variety of new offspring. But in his garden, Jim has turned mints’ aggravating habit into an advantage.
Mints are promiscuous plants. Eagerly invading each other’s beds, they trade flavors and pollens and their offspring may be a combination of the previous parents, or, like rebellious teenagers of any generation, become something not recognizable to either parent.
Richters Herbs is one of only two places licensed to sell Jim’s new mints (see Sources). “As you would expect when you cross different varieties, you get progeny that resembles the parents, plus every imaginable combination in between,” says owner Conrad Richter. “Often the progeny are not fertile and can’t produce seeds, so they can only live on with the help of clonal propagation.” It’s that propensity to produce so many intergrades that makes it possible for Jim to produce new mint varieties.
Jim has been developing his new mints for 18 years. He found that certain mints in his collection are better for propagation than others, and he has made good use of those plants he calls his “mother plants.”
Propagate, Refine, Record and Register
A stickler for details, when Jim developed the mint he eventually patented in 1995 as ‘Hillary’s Sweet Lemon’ mint, he took meticulous step-by-step photos and saved notes during seven years of propagation.
“When crossbreeding, virtually the entire effort from start to finish must be documented, including isolating and controlling every aspect of the plants that the U.S. Patent Office required,” he says with a laugh. “It’s recording over and over again every detail — and I love it.”
Jim chose mints for hybridizing because of his lengthy affinity for them. “By age 10, I was already in love with mints and was aware of stamens, pistils, pollen and the way plants propagated,” Jim says. “At about age 11, I read a story about hybridization and vowed one day to give it a go myself.”
Mints for commercial use traditionally have been judged by the amount and quality of the oils they produce. As a result, when the oils are extracted they are consistent in flavor or fragrance.
That’s not to say that Jim’s mints might not be useful for those purposes — several of his, such as ‘Marilyn’s Sweet Salad’ mint, have highly aromatic oil concentrations. But another standard applies for judging these plants’ commercial value. Their value as landscape plants and blooming plants doesn’t fit into the normal categories for judging this plant family.
Diversity From a Common Herb
“There is quite a mixed bag of attributes in Jim’s mints,” Richter says. “Some have interesting new scents and flavors, some have more succulent leaves, some have attractive flowers. I think what Jim does well is to push the boundaries of our notions of what mints should be like. ‘Marilyn’s Sweet Salad’ mint is a good example because it can actually be added as a green in salads. Of course, mint couscous salad has been around for millennia, but the idea of adding fresh mint in other salads, just like lettuce, is novel.”
Who knew mints could be bred to be good bloomers? ‘Hillary’s Sweet Lemon’ mint is a good example. It’s a prolific bloomer, producing a continuous display of lavender spikes throughout the summer. A great attractant for butterflies, it produces such a volume of flower spikes that I’ve taken to collecting small basketfuls of just the flowers and drying them for a deliciously delicate winter tea.
Others of Jim’s mints are remarkable, as well. ‘Candy Lime’ mint has a delicate hint of lime in its background flavors. Jim says the best way to appreciate this plant is to take about 4 inches of the stem tip, dip it in water and shake off the excess; then dip it in sugar and shake off that excess, as well. Take a bite and enjoy a piece of sweet lime candy.
‘Berries and Cream’ mint has a background hint that’s fruity and berry-like with a warm creaminess, while ‘Margarita’ mint is lime-like without the sweetness of his ‘Candy Lime’ mint.
Jim Westerfield’s Mints‘Hillary’s Sweet Lemon’ — patented in 1995
‘Julia’s Sweet Citrus’ mint (named for Julia Child, whose photo hangs on Jim’s living room wall) is another with a citrus-like undertone. ‘Sweet Bay’ mint evokes the subtle fragrances of sweet bay, with its floral aroma. ‘Oregano-Thyme’ mint has a combination of all three plant fragrances and flavors.
Choosing a favorite among Jim’s mints can be daunting. I like ‘Margarita’ simply because it makes a very good margarita. But if pushed to choose from among the one patented and 14 trademarked mints Jim has introduced in the past dozen years, I would have to select ‘Marilyn’s Salad’ mint, named for his wife Marilyn — “because the mint is strong, robust and full of life, just like my dear, sweet wife,” he says.
‘Marilyn’s Salad’ quickly grows almost waist high and can measure 3 feet across. It blooms freely with lovely, deep lavender flowers for several months in summer, making it an attractive landscape plant for patio containers. But it is the high concentration of warming, fragrant oils that is most striking about this plant.
On a recent visit, Jim plucked a handful of the stout stems of ‘Marilyn’s Salad’ and rolled them into a ball, then crushed the stems before handing it to me. “Take a long, deep breath of this,” he said. In a split second, the aroma had literally cleared my sinuses, and the top of my head was warm and tingling.
Jim has produced some new mints recently. ‘Sweet Pear’ is one of the newest introductions, with a warm, fruity aroma that reminds you of ripe pears. Another addition, ‘Sister Julie’s Wintergreen’, was introduced in 2003 and has a hint of wintergreen.
The newest introduction is ‘Candied Fruit’, which Jim says is exciting because it’s a fantastic landscape herb with a consistent height throughout its growing season.
Jim is changing the way we think about these plants. Mint is no longer a generic herb — a plant so common no one gives it a second look. Now, we have the option of tiny miniature plants that taste like candy, or large, robust, landscape-sized plants that bloom throughout the season. Choose a mint that has the continuous flowering of lavender flowers or pink blossoms, or a profusion of deep green leaves to use in salads.
There are mints to clear your sinuses and mints to make into beverages and sorbets. Mints are no longer the forgotten stalwarts of the herb garden. They have risen to the top as one of the most exciting plants for flavor, fragrance and landscape use to come along in many years.
“I’ve been attempting, over the past 18 years, to produce hybrids within the mint family,” Jim says. “Along the way, I’ve met with great occasional success. In all, I’ve produced approximately 50 new mint hybrids, and I plan, in time, to introduce all of them to the commercial marketplace.
“I hope my efforts will reflect a renewed interest in one of the oldest and most respected members of the herb world,” he says. “I have been truly amazed and gratified to see how they have been welcomed with open arms by everyone who tries them.”
Jim Long is a contributing editor to The Herb Companion and author of several books on herbs and gardening. Questions or comments are always welcome at Lcherbs@interlinc.net.
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