By Jill Henderson – Show Me Oz –
Last week we discussed the Mint Family and how to identify its members through characteristics such as stem shape and flower presentation. But because this series is all about “mints”, it’s only fair to give the Mentha mints their day in the sun. After all, mints such as spearmint and peppermint are by far and away the most common and popular herbs in the entire Mint Family. If you missed last week’s article, you can read it here: The Wonderful World of Mints Part I: Identifying Mints in the Garden
The most common mints are Spearmint (Mentha spicata), Peppermint (Mentha piperita), and Apple Mint (Mentha suaveolens), which are well-known for their cool, spicy-sweet flavor and aroma. These are but 3 out of 18 recognized species of the Mentha genera. In addition, there are some 40 or more natural and man-made hybrids and cultivars.
With so many cultivars, it is easy to see how mints readily hybridize. The exceptions are true peppermint and a few select hybrids, which produce seeds that are completely sterile. All other mints are cross-pollinated by flying insects, which means that the seeds they produce will not come true to form. This is a very important fact if you are growing more than one Mentha species that is not true peppermint.
If cross-pollinated mints are allowed to self-sow, the specific flavor of those cultivars will eventually be lost in a maze of new hybrids that are nothing like their parents. So, in order to keep your pineapple, spearmint and chocolate mints from blending into an unrecognizable fruit smoothie, it is essential to either separate the different varieties by at least 20 ft. or more, or ensure that the plants never produce seed. The latter is accomplished by aggressively pruning (or harvesting) mints before they set seed.
That being said, it is also very important to avoid starting mint from seed. To make sure your mints will come true to type, purchase nursery-grown plants or propagate existing plants with stem cuttings or root divisions. If you are offered a mint plant from another gardener, be sure that you like the smell and taste of the leaves before adding it to your collection.
Although mint leaves can be picked at any time of the year for fresh use, young leaves are best collected before or just as the flowers open. If your mint is well-established (more than one year old), it is very likely that you will get as many as three cuttings per year. Use a pair of very sharp scissors to cut the stems down to within 2 inches of the soil.
Hang cut stems in loose bunches until dry. To remove leaves quickly from the stem, loosely grasp the tip of the stem and pull downwards. Dry the leaves on a tray or screen until they are crisp and store them in an airtight jar away from light. It is possible to freeze mint, but the flavor and texture is slightly affected. Flowers should be collected at the height of their bloom and dried for use in tea or potpourri.
Of the two most common mints used for culinary purposes, spearmint is by far and away the most popular due to its sweet, mild flavor. However, peppermint is much more popular for use as tea and in cold drinks. It can also be used as a culinary substitute for spearmint, when needed.
Mint is traditionally used in drinks such as hot tea, iced tea, fruit drinks, mint juleps, and mojitos. The freshly chopped leaves add zest to fresh fruit and vegetable salads, yogurt, dressings, creamy dips, and spreads. Mint is an important ingredient in ethnic dishes such as dolmas (stuffed grape leaves), tabbouleh, hummus, and pulse. It also goes well with lamb, fish, chicken, and rice, as well as vegetables such as new potatoes, tomatoes, carrots, and peas. The leaves and flowers of mint can be candied or used as garnishes.
While most cultivars of mint retain at least some of their minty qualities, these days mints come in a vast array of flavors, including:
Applemint, Austrian, Banana, Beach, Berries and Cream, Candied Fruit, Candy Lime, Chinese, Chocolate, Corsican, Cotton Candy, Cretan Calamint, Curled Spearmint, English, Fish, Ginger, Grapefruit, Italian Spice, Jamaican, Japanese, Jim’s Fruit, Korean, Lime, Margarita, Marshmallow, Menthol, Mojito, Moroccan, Mountain, Orange, Oregano-Thyme, Peppermint, Pineapple, Roman, Savory, Scotch, Silver, Spearmint, Sweet Bay, Sweet Lemon, Sweet Pear, Swiss, Vietnamese, Water, Wintergreen.
With all of the fantastic, taste-tempting flavors and aromas of mint at your service, your food will be anything but boring!
Next week we’ll talk more about mint and its fantastic healing powers.
If you missed last week’s article, you can read it here: The Wonderful World of Mints Part I: Identifying Mints in the Garden
© 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.