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Marvellous Mint
by Lesley Reynolds
by Lesley Reynolds

email: lreynolds@saltspring.com

Lesley Reynolds is a freelance garden writer who was born in England and emigrated to Regina as a child. Lesley has always loved plants and the natural environment and has gardened in Saskatchewan and Alberta for over 20 years, spending most of that time in Calgary. For the past seven years, Lesley has been working with her friend and writing partner Liesbeth Leatherbarrow and they have several best-selling gardening books to their credit.

In August 2001, Lesley moved with her family to Salt Spring Island, British Columbia. She is enjoying learning how to garden on the west coast and is busy planning a brand new garden.


June 27, 2004

Fragrant, ornamental, and easy to grow, mint has always been a staple of the prairie herb garden. Its many uses—culinary, cosmetic, and medicinal—make it one of the most widely grown herbs anywhere. 

Like many herbs, mint was widely esteemed and used in the ancient world. In Greek mythology, Minthe was a nymph loved by Pluto, ruler of the underworld. The god changed the nymph into the herb when his jealous wife pursued her and trod her underfoot. In biblical times mint was collected as a tithe by the Pharisees, and laid on synagogue floors by the Hebrews. Mint was regarded as the herb of hospitality by the Romans, who also used it as a strewing herb and for flavouring wines and sauces. In Japan, the herb found a place in scented pomanders. Mint was commonly grown in medieval times, and by the ninth century many varieties had been introduced into Europe. It was used to carpet the floors of Italian churches where it was known as "Erba Santa Maria." 

Today there are over six hundred varieties of mints, with new hybrids appearing on the market every year. Richters, Canada's best known herb grower, lists thirty-four mint selections in their 2002 catalogue. With their appealing flavour, fragrance, and foliage colour, mints are essential to the herb or perennial garden. 

Mint is superb in cool summer drinks, in sauces, jellies, and vinegar, as a garnish for both savoury or sweet dishes, and dried for soothing cups of tea during the winter months. Use mint in lamb and poultry dishes, pestos, salads, with vegetables (especially peas and potatoes), and in desserts and ice cream. 

The hardiest and most commonly grown mints in prairie gardens are peppermint (Mentha piperita vulgaris), and spearmint (M. spicata). These plants reach a height of up to 70 cm (28 in.) and have square stems, oval and pointed medium to dark green leaves, and whorls of tiny pink to purple flowers.

More striking in appearance are the variegated mints that have become very popular over the past few years. Pineapple mint (M. suaveolens 'Variegata') has cream and green leaves, while ginger mint (M. x gracilis 'Variegata') is splashed with gold. There are also variegated forms of apple mint (M. suaveolens) and spearmint.

Other popular fruit-flavored mints are the citrusy quartet of lime, orange ( both M. piperita citrata), lemon (M. 'Hillary's Sweet Lemon Mint'), and grapefruit (a hybrid of M. suaveolens and M. x piperita), while banana mint (M. arvensis 'Banana'), and sweet pear mint (M. 'Sweet Pear') offer even more culinary possibilities. Chocolate mint (M. x piperita) is vigorous and attractive and, as the name implies, has a taste that suggests chocolate mint candy. This year Richters has introduced several tempting new mint hybrids including 'Berries and Cream', 'Jim's Candy Lime', and 'Margarita'. Mints that mimic other herbs are also offered, such as 'Oregano-Thyme' and 'Sweet Bay'.

Mint grows well in full sun to part shade and prefers moist, rich soil. Most mints spread by means of creeping underground stems and the most vigorous types can become invasive. However, don't let this prevent you from growing this delightful herb. To control spreading, plant mint in large bottomless containers sunk in the ground with the rim of the container a few centimeters above the soil level. Alternatively plant mint where it is confined by a path or driveway.

Spearmint and peppermint are very hardy. However, like most perennials they will benefit from a layer of organic mulch in the fall to prevent the soil from drying out during the winter. The exotic-flavoured mints are less hardy and will not spread as readily. Plant them in a sheltered location and mulch well before winter. However, some prairie gardeners have been very successful in wintering ginger mint, chocolate mint, and lemon mint. 

Separate different varieties of mint, since they readily interbreed. Because they will not come true from seeds, propagate mint by division or take cuttings. It is a good idea to root a few cuttings of your favorite mints in the fall in case the parent plants don't survive the winter. Mint plants should be divided every few years, when the centers die out.

Plant mint in your herb garden or in a location near the kitchen, so it may be readily harvested for your culinary creations. Mints are fabulous container plants, both alone or in combination with other herbs. Prairie gardeners must remember to transplant container-grown mints into the garden for the winter. Properly confined in pots, mint may also be planted in a border where its deep green foliage will accent flowering perennials. Water mint (M. aquatica) is a lovely and fragrant addition to pondside plantings.

Chocolate and fruit-flavoured mints are superb herbs for children's gardens. I recall many occasions when my young daughter collected the leaves of various mints and lemon balm (a mint relative, Melissa officinalis), tore them up into tiny pieces, and mixed them with a little sugar and orange juice, thus creating 'salad' to serve to her friends (and her parents). 

Harvest mint leaves just when the flowers begin to appear. To dry mint, hang the leafy stems in small bunches, or strip off the leaves and place them on a screen. Store in a warm, dry place until completely dried.

 

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