There is a mint for every occasion. Start your day by placing a sprig of black stem peppermint in the basket of your coffee maker before you brew your morning java. Savor the sweet beverage as you stroll through your garden where spikes of dainty mint flowers attract multitudes of beneficial insects to protect your prize plants. Perk up your noon time chicken soup with a handful of spearmint. Add peppermint to meatballs for an exotic Mid-Eastern touch. Dine at a table decorated with a mint bouquet. Has the weather turned chilly? Get out a sweater free of moth holes thanks to the protection of sweet scented sachets of pennyroyal. Finally, sip a warm cup of peppermint tea when an upset tummy needs soothing, however, be aware that as a smooth muscle relaxant, peppermint can increase the severity of gastro refux disorder.
Mints are fun and easy to grow, perhaps too easy...Many a garden has been taken over by an aggressive mint that has gone astray. If you live in an area with fertile soil and plentiful rain you may want to keep your mints confined in large planters or hanging baskets. If you live in a more hostile environment control your mint by restricting water and immediately removing any wayward stems that pop up in unwanted locations.
When many people purchase their first mint, they immediately plant it under a leaky faucet in deep shade. This may be an ideal location for Mentha aquatica (water mint) or tiny Mentha requienii (Corsican mint) but most of these versatile herbs grow best in sunny locations and many will thrive even in full sun if given adequate water. Mint is easily shared with a friend by rooting cuttings in water or by taking divisions of an existing plant. Mint should be cut regularly to encourage tender, bushy stems and high leaf production. In early spring and early fall slice vertically through your plant with a long knife. This will "freshen up" your plant by causing it to root anew from the stems and roots you cut. Feed occasionally with your favorite fertilizer, mixed at half-strength. Too much food will create a plant with lush growth but less flavor.
Even an experienced gardener can find a collection of mints bewildering. They come in all shapes, sizes and flavors. An easy way to classify them is to divide them by the essential oil they contain. The two main categories are the menthol containing peppermints and the carvone scented spearmints. The third category is the always useful and popular "other".
The Peppermints (menthol containing)
A hybrid between M. aquatica and M. spicata, peppermint cannot be grown from seed. It is a vigorous grower with a strong mint flavor. Many specific varieties exist with an assortment of appearances and scents. The common form grows from 12 to 30 inches high and has spikes of pinkish or lavender flowers. It tends to have a creeping appearance and elongated leaves that end in a point.
Mentha xpiperata 'Chocolate Mint'
Although many individuals affirm that they smell chocolate, research has shown that the plant sold as 'Chocolate Mint' is really 'Black Stemmed Peppermint' The combination of the name and the wonderful mint aroma certainly do remind one of a Peppermint Pattie®. This useful mint will add an extra sensory delight when infused into coffee or hot chocolate. Whirl a handful with a cup of sugar and use when making vanilla cake or ice cream. The plant tends to creep along the ground rather than grow upward and can be quite aggressive. It will do best with at least half a day of sun.
Mentha aquatica (citrate form)
This delightful mint goes under a variety of names depending upon the perception of the grower. Also called orange mint, eau de cologne mint and even lavender mint, it is a wonderful addition to the garden under any name. (See The Big Book of Herbs by Tucker and DeBaggio for a discussion of nomenclature.) It has attractive rounded leaves with a hint of bronze to them. It is not as aggressive as most mints. It can be used to flavor desserts and teas. Despite the name, it is not the source of bergamot tea, which is flavored with oil from bergamot oranges.
The Spearmints (carvone containing)
Spearmint Mentha spicata
Spearmint is the mint most often used in cooking. Growing from 12-24 inches high, the crinkled leaves of this creeping mint are bright green with rounded ends. White or pale pink flowers appear in the summer. It is an aggressive grower and does well when planted in a pathway where footsteps will provide natural pruning as well as release its heavenly fragrance.
Mentha spicata 'Curly'
A highly ornamental mint with bright green leaves that are highly crinkled. It has a trailing habit that makes it ideal for growing in a container. Prune frequently to encourage bushy growth.
Kentucky Colonel Mint
Mentha spicata 'Kentucky Colonel'
A tasty variety of spearmint that is useful in making mint juleps as well as serving as a basic spearmint in any cooking task. It is fairly aggressive and may need to be contained.
Woolly Apple Mint
An attractive mint that seems to have less flavor than other mints. It has a vague apple scent that does not carry over into cooking. It is a very attractive, downy mint whose lilac flowers are born in trios of spikes during the summer. It is a larval food for hairstreak butterflies. Woolly apple mint seems to thrive on neglect, give it lots of room to grow. It reaches from 12 to 30 inches tall.
Corsican Mint Mentha requienii
This darling of Creme de Menthe fame is a very low growing mint that requires protection from hot sun and plenty of water. While some recommend it as a filler between garden stepping stones, it is best grown in containers in Austin, Texas. This will allow it to be moved as the weather dictates. Often considered difficult to grow, it also will not tolerate sudden downpours and must be able to drain quickly. It is very attractive creeping around the base of other potted plants, and is ideal for whimsical fairy gardens. The tiny round leaves are bright green. When growing conditions are right it will quickly form a dense carpet 1-2 inches tall. Corsican Mint does contain menthol and is often considered the most "minty" of all mints, but is usually placed in the "other" group because of its special appearance and growth requirements.
Red Stemmed Mint
Mentha xgracilis 'Madalene Hill'
Named after the famed Texas herb enthusiast, this hybrid between M. arvensis and M. spicata is unique in that it contains both menthol and carvone, becoming a true "double mint". The erect stems are tinged with red and will grow from 12 to 30 inches high. Lilac flowers appear in whorls along the stem during the summer. This is a favorite tea and dessert mint.
Although used as flavoring in some traditional recipes, Pennyroyal is generally considered a non-edible member of the mint family. It should never be ingested by pregnant women. It has small, oval shaped leaves and commonly creeps along the ground. During the summer whorls of pink flowers will appear. Pennyroyal will grow in shadey locations, but fullest growth will occur with half a day of sun. The leaves may be dried and used in sachets designed to keep insects away.