By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Of all the plants in the garden, mints are probably the most numerous and sometimes the most notorious. That’s why most people immediately envision sprightly spearmint, tangy peppermint, or one of the many flavorful cultivars or subspecies of the Mentha genera when mint is discussed. But Mentha mints only make up a tiny fraction of plants that belong to the Mint Family (Lamiaceae), which contains over 200 genera and more than 7,000 species! In fact, it might be surprising to learn just how many Mint Family plants reside in our gardens.
To help find other Mint Family members hiding in the garden we must first learn how to recognize their tell-tale characteristics, the first of which is a square (four-sided) stem. The best way to determine if a stem is four-sided is by rolling it lightly between your fingers. Keep in mind that not all mints have four-sided stems (thyme, for example) and a few non-mint family members also have square stems.
The next most common way to identify a mint family member is by its leaves, which grow opposite one another along the stem. Leaves at the base of the plant are about the same size, but when the plant begins to generate flowering stems, the leaves get progressively smaller towards the top. Of course, the leaves are often very aromatic.
The third most common characteristic of mints are the tiny tubular flowers, which are very attractive to pollinators, butterflies and hummingbirds. Each flower consists of five petals fused together to give the appearance of an upper and lower “lip”. These flowers are clustered together in whorls, either in terminal spikes (spikes of flowers only at the end of the stems) or in the leaf axils, but rarely both. Once the flowers have faded, the seed producing ovary is divided into four conspicuous nutlets.
Once you know what to look for, finding Mint Family plants in the landscape is easy. Among the most common are basil, bee balm, catnip, horehound, horsemint, hyssop, lavender, lemon balm, marjoram, motherwort, oregano, peppermint (and their many cultivars), pennyroyal, perilla, rosemary, sage (and all salvias), savory (winter and summer), skullcap, spearmint and thyme and many others.
Not only do mints make up for a large number of our common culinary herbs, but they also include a huge variety of wild and cultivated ornamentals, weeds, and shrubs.
Next week, we’ll dive a little deeper into the Mint Family’s namesake and discuss how to grow, control, propagate, save seed, harvest and use common mint for food, medicine and ornamental beauty in the landscape.
© 2013 Jill Henderson
The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs is a no-nonsense guide jam-packed with no-nonsense information on growing, harvesting and using 35 of the world’s safest and most flavorful herbs. In addition to the 35 detailed herbal monographs are entire chapters on growing, harvesting and using kitchen herbs to spice up your favorite dish or create healing herbal remedies. This is one book you will turn to time and time again!
Available in the Show Me Oz Bookstore
Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz . Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore. Jill’s work has also appeared in The Permaculture Activist, The Essential Herbal, Acres USA, and Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac.