Surprise! Mints with Fresh Fruit Scents

| August/September 1997

  • Woolly apple mint
    Photograph by jerry Pavia
  • Pineapple mint
    Photograph by jerry Pavia
  • Ginger mint
    Photograph by Andy Van Hevelingen
  • Orange mint
    Photograph by Andy Van Hevelingen

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!”

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