Marvelous Mint

peppermint

peppermint

One of the herbalists I follow is Jekka McVicar, an organic grower of herbs, horticulturist, author, and designer who owns Jekka’s Herb Farm in Bristol, England. If I lived in England, I would be working at her herb farm, learning everything there is to learn. Recently the Royal Horticultural Society featured a short video of her and Michelin chief Nathan Outlaw about mint. They presented the short video as part of RHS Grow Winter Crops. She showed how Victorians forced mint for a fresh supply for Christmas. Nathan, who also is a gardener, was explaining how he uses mint in roasted vegetables with a splash of wine. What was fascinating was that she simply took a root-bound mint plant out of its small plastic container and cut up the white healthy rhizomes into little pieces. She put these little cuttings in a flat of potting mix, only a few inches high, for them to root and make more mint plants. She showed a flat she prepared prior to the show that had little mint leaves shooting up within one week of cutting.

chocolate mint

chocolate mint

I grow mint and I have always known how easy mint roots but I always propagate by stem cuttings. I never thought that it only takes a small cutting of the rhizome, layered in soil, to initiate the process. This is a great idea for growing a lot of mint as a fundraiser, or as gifts, or as Jekka says, to have “fresh mint pickings for Christmas.”

Because mint roots so readily, mint is an aggressive plant that will take over a garden bed. Therefore, mint must be grown in containers. Mine are in large plastic containers, about 12 inches wide, long, and deep. Mint is a perennial hardy to zone 5 so they survive the winter in containers here in zone 7 Virginia.

spearmint

spearmint emerging in the spring

Even when they are in containers you must keep an eye on them. The sneaky plant will leave the container by snaking through drainage holes or running over the rim to search out new soil. In fact, a month ago, my peppermint had developed several runners cascading over the rim of the container. I snipped them off and put them in a plastic basin of water. In a month, they rooted and I just lifted the mass out of the basin and put in the top inch of a large container filled with potting mix. Now I unintentionally have more peppermint but that is good as the holidays are coming.

There are about 30 different species of mint and about 500 to 600 different varieties. Most mints are not native to the United States but have become naturalized. They seldom grow true from seed and will cross pollinate so vegetative propagation is the preferred method.

Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) and spearmint (Mentha spicata) are the most popular. They prefer either morning sun and afternoon shade or a light dappled shade. They like moist soil and can be harvested anytime in the growing season. You can use mint leaves fresh or dried, they dry well.

Peppermint, unlike spearmint, contains menthol so peppermint can be used for medicinal purposes as well as culinary. A peppermint tea helps alleviate an upset stomach, gas, nausea, or cramps. Peppermint also does not produce seed; it is a sterile hybrid of two species: M. spicata (spearmint) and M. aquatica (watermint).

Spearmint is used as a flavoring; it does not have medicinal qualities. It does produce seed and you can purchase packets of spearmint seeds.

syrup in pot

chocolate mint leaves in pot to make syrup

If you were to look at the cuisines across the world, you would find mint – from Middle Eastern tabbouleh to Thai stir-fried dishes to Indian yogurt-based condiments. In my family we use mint for the sweet beverages and desserts such as tea, fresh fruit, syrups, sugar, whipped cream, and baked goods. We mince fresh peppermint leaves and add to chocolate chip cookie dough or packaged brownie mix. We add a fresh sprig to a cup of hot cocoa and hot tea. We use the spearmint for fresh fruit dishes, whipped cream, syrups, cookies, and iced tea. Usually it is spearmint that is used in cooking such as carrots, peas, and new potatoes, and meats such as beef and pork (my mother always served a spearmint jelly with pork).

I also grow chocolate, citrus, and mojito mint. The chocolate mint is great for making a syrup and pouring over strawberries. The citrus mint is good for fruit and the mojito mint speaks for itself. On my bucket list are the hybridized mints developed to bring out certain aromas such as iced hazelnut, lavender, wild berries, candied fruit, and marshmallow.

mint syrup

chocolate mint syrup

Sprigs of fresh mint can even be added to floral arrangements, and dried leaves can be added to bowls of potpourri.  There are many types, some with white/green or green/yellow variegation and some with fuzzy leaves and these can interest as a garnish to cakes, cupcakes, or fruit salads. Because of its great scent, mint is also used in cosmetics, bath products, ointments, toothpaste, mouth wash, soaps, shampoos, and liqueurs and even to flavor tobacco.

I use my plants as sources for instant gifts. I simply pot up a cutting in a pretty container and insert a recipe card. With my chocolate mint, I include the simple syrup recipe and suggest pouring over fresh strawberries. Because mint roots so readily, they are great plants to have on hand for gifts, plant swaps, and even fundraisers.

Whenever I visit a nursery, I always check out the herb section and look at their mints. I tend to collect them. I also find them on the sale table at the end of the season. If you see them for sale in the fall at a reduced price, buy them and pot them up in a larger container. They will reward you (and your friends) with aromatic botanical flavor for years to come.

If you have mint growing tips and recipes, please share as a comment here or share on a new Facebook group called Culinary Herbs and Spices.

chocolate mint plant

cutting of chocolate mint plant to give to new neighbor

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