Each time I brush against the hairy foliage of woolly apple mint, its scent of russet apples and mint takes me back to the small, hot kitchen where my herb mentor, Emma Wakefield, made apple mint jelly for the local garden society’s annual herb festival and fund-raiser. Peering into one of her great, simmering cauldrons, I asked her why she called it mint jelly when it was made from apples and was light rose in color, not the vivid green that I associated with mint jelly. She just laughed as she placed a leaf of apple mint in the bottom of each recycled baby food jar. As the hot jelly filled the jars, the leaves slowly rose to the top, emitting a wonderful minty apple fragrance. Wordlessly, Emma added a drop or two of food coloring to each jar. Presto! All now contained green “real” mint jelly.
Now, nearly thirty years later, the smell of mint always gives me a feeling of festivity. Beyond the familiar spearmint and peppermint, and in addition to apple mint, I have come to grow many fruit-scented forms.
A matter of menthol
Mints belong to the genus Mentha in the family Lamiaceae. They are very aromatic plants with four-sided stems, opposite leaves, and small, two-lipped flowers of purple, pink, or white arranged either in an interrupted spike or in little rounded heads at the top of the stem.
Most mints either do not produce seed or do not come true from seed; those that do produce viable seed hybridize with seeming abandon, creating a nightmare for taxonomists and others who have to deal with their botanical names. Most mints also spread energetically by rhizomes.
According to Roman mythology, Pluto, god of the underworld, was taking his pleasure with the nymph Menthe, daughter of Ceres, goddess of agriculture, when his jealous wife, Proserpine, found them out. To punish the girl, Proserpine changed her into a plant, which she banished to the shadows near a running stream. Mints, the plants that now bear the nymph’s name, Mentha, flourish wherever the soil is moist, in sun as well as (or better than) in shade.
During the Middle Ages, stalks of mint were strewn, as the English herbalist Gerard says, “in rooms and places of recreation, pleasure, and repose, where feats and banquets are made.” At one time, Irish physicians, recognizing its virtues, advised, “If you would be at all times merry, put a little mint in all your meat and drink!”
Thanks to mints’ promiscuous ways and the variability of their offspring, as many as 2,000 different names have been bestowed on what are now regarded as 18 mint species and their many, many variants (for more information, see “The Truth About Mints”, August/September 1992). The prospect of trying to make sense of all these names is boggling, but it’s all a matter of menthol, the principal constituent of mints’ essential oils. The smell and taste of a given mint plant are determined by the proportion of menthol to other components in its essential oil.
Chemical analysis of the oils, which has helped sort out the species and is used to evaluate commercial mint crops, is not really practicable for the fruit-scenteds, which can vary in aroma and taste among individuals of the same cultivar. Like wine connoisseurs, herb people evaluate mints by their senses, using nose, eyes, and tongue to decide which ones are most appealing and which really live up to their common names. Both growing and using these mints are a sensual pleasure.
The following fruit-scented mints have a varied palette of fragrances and flavors. All are attractive and interesting to grow, although most are best confined to containers to restrain their exuberant growth.
Apple mint (Mentha x villosa var. alopecuroides) is sometimes confused with the nonvariegated form of pineapple mint, M. suaveolens. Some people know this plant as woolly apple mint. It has rigid, hairy stems as tall as 4 feet. The large, oval leaves are also hairy and become more silver as the summer progresses. Branched stems produce a profusion of tiny white or pale pink flowers. The scent combines the fruity aroma of russet apples with mint overtones. When established, apple mint tolerates drier conditions than most other mints. My stand of apple mint gradually crept over to a hedge of Christmas berry (Photinia x fraseri), where I allowed it to remain for many years because it looked so good in contrast with the reddish purple leaves. The hedge’s vigorous roots kept the ground quite dry, which restrained the mint’s spread.
Apple mint is considered second only to spearmint in culinary merit. The minced leaves are an excellent addition to fruit salads and are outstanding in tea. Emma Wakefield’s mint tea blend, which the Willamette Valley Herb Society markets in her memory, contains four parts apple mint, two parts spearmint, and one part each peppermint and orange mint. It is especially delicious on a cold winter day and at long herb meetings.
‘Banana’ mint (M. arvensis ‘Banana’) was selected for its pleasant scent by John Balf, a long-time Canadian herb grower, from the common European corn mint (M. arvensis), which had naturalized in Canadian forests. It is a low-growing plant that takes a few years to become established before it begins to spread. The slender, pointed leaves are light green and slightly hairy. It has lovely short spikes of lilac flowers. To me, the scent is more reminiscent of banana peel than banana. I grow this plant as a novelty. Despite its pale foliage, it is extremely winter-hardy.
Variegated ginger mint, also known as golden apple mint, (M. arvensis ‘Variegata‘, usually listed in the trade as M. x gentilis ‘Variegata’ or M. x gracilis ‘Variegata’). This virally infected clone of European corn mint has reddish stems and leaves splashed with a golden translucent variegation along their veins that develops in cool weather but fades in summer. I find that if I prune plants severely after flowering, they will renew their golden variegated growth. This low-growing mint is restrained at first, but once established, it begins to spread aggressively. The scent and flavor have strong fruity overtones with a hint of spiciness, perhaps of ginger. Although it provided excellent foliage contrast in an English perennial border that I visited, I pity the gardener who had to keep it in bounds. It looks great in containers. I like to use this mint as a garnish in salads and appetizers.
‘Grapefruit’ mint (M. x piperita ‘Grapefruit’). This unusual selection of peppermint has rounded leaves that are hairy and slightly crisped, and the plant appears much bushier than other mints. When the weather turns cool, the foliage takes on a purplish or wine-colored cast, which complements the lavender pink flowers. The flavor is a beguiling combination of spearmint with a strong, lingering grapefruitlike overtone. This is one of my favorite mints. It always looks good, its tinted leaves make an eye-catching garnish, and because it does not send out rampant runners, it is the only mint I would venture to plant in the garden.
‘Hillary’s sweet lemon’ mint (M. ‘Hillary’s Sweet Lemon’), named for First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, is a hybrid, supposedly of apple and lime mint. It’s a vigorous spreader with 12- to 15-inch reddish upright stems and wrinkled leaves that have whitish veins against a darker green background. The flowers are lilac. The scent and flavor are more like sweet spearmint than citrusy or fruity. Except for having hairier stems, this seems identical to a mint cultivar called ‘Lemon Bergamot’. I use them both for garnishing beverages. (The common name lemon mint is also applied to two entirely different herbs, lemon balm, Melissa officinalis, and a kind of bee balm, Monarda citriodora.)
‘Lime’ mint (M. x piperita ‘Lime’) is a selection of peppermint with a refreshing citrus scent that I like a lot, but my wife, Melissa, finds it strong and repugnant. The leaves are unusual for mint leaves. The lower ones are round or heart-shaped, but the upper ones are irregular, many having lobes at the base and being somewhat twisted on the stem. I use the sprigs to garnish iced beverages.
Orange mints (M. aquatica ‘Citrata’, often listed as M. x piperita ‘Citrata’ or M. citrata) are a group that includes forms offered as ‘Bergamot’, ‘Orange’, ‘Orange Bergamot’, ‘Lemon’, and ‘Eau de Cologne’. I find them virtually indistinguishable in appearance. All have smooth, roundish to heart-shaped dark green leaves that take on a tint of bronze purple in spring and fall. The purple stems are topped by small, rounded whorls of purple-pink flowers. All are fast spreaders and can take over a large area in a single season. The scent is extremely variable but ranges from a strong citrus peppermint scent in ‘Orange’ to a mild floral mint in ‘Eau de Cologne’. Frequently, plants bearing different names have the same scent. I once bought an ‘Eau de Cologne’ from France that differed slightly in appearance from the other orange mints I was already growing and had a more balanced citrus and mint scent than the others.
The orange mints are all extremely decorative and attractive as garden specimens. They are handsome in early spring, when their new growth is a deep, almost metallic purple.
I like to begin a sunny summer day by setting out a gallon jar of water for sun tea made with Earl Grey tea flavored with a big handful of orange mint. By late afternoon, it makes a delicious, refreshing iced tea. The flavors of the orange mints are too perfumelike to use extensively in cooking, but the leaves make good potpourri.
Pineapple mint (M. suaveolens, usually listed as M. suaveolens ‘Variegata’) is perhaps the most attractive of all mints, with its irregular cream variegation on bright green, fuzzy leaves. Its scent is slightly sweeter and more fruity than pineapple, at least to me. Maximum variegation occurs during cool weather. The occasional all-white shoot or leaf soon dies as it lacks chlorophyll for photosynthesis. One of the least robust of the mints that I grow, pineapple mint forms slow-growing clumps to 15 inches tall. Like other variegated plants, this one has a tendency to revert to the more vigorous green form. I choose only the best variegation when propagating this plant from stem cuttings. Pineapple mint prefers a much richer soil than other mints and performs best if grown in partial shade. It is great for illuminating a dark area or highlighting a background of mainly green plants. I saw a planting at the base of a bay tree in England that was stunning in its contrast.
Mints will adapt to a host of different soil types as long as they have a moist root run or occasional watering during periods of drought. When given adequate water, most (except variegated forms) thrive in full sun; they are actually healthier and yield a superior essential oil than when grown in shade.
Most mints are terribly invasive in their quest for moisture. I began by growing orange mint in the herb garden, but it spread so fast, interbred with other mints, and became so intertwined with weeds that I removed it and all my other mints to 4-by-8-foot raised beds. For two years, all went well, but then I noticed that nearly all of the mints had sent out runners under the mulched walkways. That’s when I decided to keep them in containers, as I had seen done at a Canadian nursery. These need to be placed on a concrete pad so that the mints can’t root into the ground through the drainage holes.
I replant or divide my mint plants yearly. They are heavy feeders and tend to exhaust the soil of nutrients. The roots will be circling the edge of the container by the end of the first year, and then the center of the plant begins to die out. It’s easy to knock an overgrown plant out of its pot, cut away any dead or woody parts, and replant the healthy parts into fresh soil.
Few pests bother mints. One that does, the mint beetle, is usually a problem only in commercial fields and not in the home herb garden. The three most common diseases of mint are fungal: mildew, most prevalent in dry, warm weather; rust, characterized by the presence of bright orange dots on the underside of the leaves; and verticillium wilt, a soil-borne disease that clogs the plant’s water-conducting vessels. The first two rarely are more than cosmetic problems. Generally, rust will not persist if stock is regenerated every two to three years and infected leaves are disposed of in the trash. Verticillium wilt, however, is lethal and can be especially troublesome because the causative organism can live in the soil for years. If verticillium wilt strikes, dispose of both plants and soil in the trash and wait three years before planting mint in that place again. Because the wilt also affects many other kinds of plants, don’t plant mint where you’ve recently grown tomatoes, foxglove, coriander, sage, or nasturtiums.
When I talk to gardeners about herbs, I always stress the importance of knowing a plant’s correct botanical name to be sure of getting the herb you want. There are just too many similar common names that are applied to different herbs. In the case of fruit-scented mints, however, the botanical names are in such a muddle that you are better off relying on the common name together with your senses. If through its fragrance, appearance, or taste a plant appeals to you, then buy it and enjoy it.
Andy Van Hevelingen and his family own an herb nursery in Newberg, Oregon.