From time to time I love to write about some of my favorite herbs. Every so often I get a recharge and full of interest in one or another. This year we raised some special mints because they were dubbed ‘promising plants’ by the Herb society of America. Last week we too these plants to the annual meeting of this group in Boston. I was especially taken by the sweet flavor and fragrance of these. The first is the favorite of herbalist Madaline Hill; it is called red stem mint or double mint and is correctly named Mentha xgracilis ‘Madalene Hill’. Consensus is that this one is a most versatile mint for the kitchen. Herbalist Madalene Hill acquired it in the 1950s and it has served as the only mint in her kitchen on a regular basis. Sometimes referred to as ‘Double Mint’ this delightful mint, according to herb expert Dr. Arthur Tucker, has the chemistry of both spearmint (Mentha spicata) and peppermint (M. xpiperita), thus making it exceptionally flavorful. It was first sold as Red-Stemmed Apple mint. We took flats of this fragrant mint to Boston for the recent annual Herb society annual educational meeting. It made the van smell wonderful throughout the journey.
The other ‘pick’ Kentucky Colonel is another good choice of mint. It is a spearmint, Mentha spicata ‘Kentucky Colonel’ that is easy to grow in sun or shade and very tasty in foods and beverages. Hundreds of years ago the Spaniards thought so highly of this mint that they carried it all over the world with them in their explorations and trading which explains why it is found around the world. The mint is so sweet it is almost like eating candy. This plant was selected and given its cultivar name by HSA’s member Mary Peddie. This one is a gem for summer beverages or to dry for potpourri or wreaths.
Another mint that is very popular and is rather new in the market is Cuba’s famed mojito mint. The cocktail of the same name is said to have been a once a daily favorite of Ernest Hemingway. The mojito, made with rum, sugar, lime juice and Cuba’s unique mojito mint, is quite popular at summer picnics as well as in cocktail lounges. While recipes call for any available variety of spearmint, the real mojito should be made with the true mojito mint. Its scent and flavor are agreeably mild and warm, not pungent or overly sweet like other mints. Like all mints it is effortless to cultivate and will supply sufficient fresh sprigs for your mojitos.
As I write this I am sipping a glass of ice tea with a sprig of mint in it. I picked it from a large patch that grows willingly under a cherry tree. This popular square stem perennial is old fashion and oh so useful. You can drink it, you can make potpourri with it, you can cook and bake with it, you can bath with it, clean with it and it will even repel insects. People love to pick mint and sniff the fresh, wonderful fragrance when they rub the leaves. In earliest times it was the universal cure for digestive problems. It was also a sign of hospitality in ancient times and certainly a favorite of the early Americans.
Spreading vigorously, it can be harvested constantly for beverages, jellies or potpourri. The more you cut it back the more beautiful it becomes. When it is mowed or trimmed the whole garden smells wonderful. It grows in sun or shade, flourishes where it is damp, yet will also grow well in dry spots. We like to grow it under trees as a great ground cover. It looks fresh and green, with delicate spikes of white, pink, mauve or purple blooms. I have been told that if you plant mint under a picnic table and then trim it for a picnic it will insure that there are no insects in the picnic area. I have read and others have told me that planted all around the foundation of a house it deters rodents. I do find that rubbing mint on my arms, legs and head while in the garden keeps insects away from me. Fragrant clean smelling orange or cologne mint works best for this.
The are hundreds of kinds of mints. My favorites are orange and apple mints. Both are light, sweet scents and can be used in many ways. Apple mint (pictured left) is sometimes called woolly mint. Orange mint is sometimes called cologne mint or better yet Eau de Cologne and is the best bath mint. Fill an old sock with it and let hot water run over it in the tub for a refreshing bath. It is the one I rub on me so that insects will not bite when I am in the garden. It really does work! Although it can be used in beverages and is quite nice, it has a bit of a perfume over tone. It is also said to be a good mouse repellent and is often hung in kitchens, placed in cabinets or behind appliances.
Pineapple mint is pretty. It has a nice fragrance, but not much taste. I like the variegated variety for its looks and use it in gardens. It is really nice for garnishing or to use in floral arrangements. Peppermint is nice, another good insect repellent. It was a favorite as a strewing herb in ancient times. They threw it on floors for parties, dances, etc., to act as a room freshener. There are many good flavorful mints such as Wrigley's, Hillary's lemon and chocolate mint. Plant them all, each under a different tree in your yard and you will never have to weed.
Some folks say they want to plant mints in pots so they will not spread. They do not stay long in a pot, so you have to constantly move mints up to larger pots. They do best once in the ground where they can grow and spread into the beautiful plants they are meant to be. Once mint is planted it is forever. So instead of trying to contain it, plant it where it can spread. Place it near the edge of a woods or field, along the road or anywhere where weeds usually grow.
I love the way mint is used in Middle Eastern cooking. Understated it certainly adds a nice mystic touch to foods. I once made mint jelly many years ago. I had a young cousin visiting who wanted to make mint jelly for her parents. Well, we made a huge pot of strong mint tea. This was mixed with sugar, sure jell, some apple juice and a few drops of green food coloring. We measured and stirred and simmered and boiled and ended up with 40 jars of mint jelly. They lasted forever ever! I have not made it ever again, but I have used mint in cooking.
It is good when pulverized in a blender with the eggs and used in chocolate brownies. Can be used in brownie mixes too. Try 4 or 5 leaves the first time and if you want a stronger flavor use more next time. Make a pretty green frosting, add a drop or two of mint extract and a drop of green food coloring spread this on the brownies, tops with chocolate jimmies or any shredded chocolate. Of course garnish with fresh mint leaves.
Pick tender small mint leaves and chop very fine. Mix in with butter and top peas and carrots that are steaming hot. This is a nice change and makes this vegetable really good. Ted and I had this at an old hotel in New Hampshire more than 25 years ago.
There are just so many fun uses for mint, try them all. But if you even if only stick a few sprigs of mint in your cup of tea, try some now.
Lorraine Kiefer is the owner of Triple Oaks Nursery and has been a garden writer since 1972. Click here to email her.
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