Think mint, and and you probably picture a garnish for your iced tea—or you might think of mojitos, mint juleps, or just about any mint-accented cocktail, like those found in the recent release Infused: 100+ Recipes for Infused Liqueurs and Cocktails.
You might think of Thin Mints Girl Scout Cookies, York Peppermint Patties, or mint chocolate chip ice cream. Mint is all that, and more. Say something is "minty" and, instantly, everyone knows what you mean. Mint is even in mystery books. If you don't believe me, check out Mint Julep Murder (Death on Demand Series #9).
Mint has been popping up in pop culture for ages. Shakespeare's works mention a number of mints, including rosemary, lavender, mint, savory and marjoram. A recent book on mints,Mints: A Family of Herbs and Ornamentals, notes that "a sprig of a form of wild thyme . . . was found in the tomb of King Tutankhamen, and peppermint was discovered in a wreath that dates back perhaps as far as the Twentieth Dynasty (1570-525 B.C.)." And remember the Simon & Garfunkel song Scarborough Fair, in which the duo sings of parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme? With the exception of parsley, all the plants in those lyrics belong to the mint family.
Yes, mint accounts for more than the plants that produce those familiar spearmint and peppermint flavors in your chewing gum and toothpaste. The mint family is expansive, and is a valuable source of ornamental plants, from tender annuals and herbs to hardy perennials and some woody shrubs, vines, and trees. There are over 200 genera in the mint family, and more than 6,000 species, many originating in the Mediterranean region, but now found all over the world.
Not only are mint plants ornamental, but many have additional value as culinary herbs and spices. For example, marjorum and oregano (Origanum), savory (Satureja), and basil (Ocimum) all belong to the mint family. Additionally, many plants in the mint family contain essential oils that make them highly aromatic, especially when the leaves are crushed; not only mint itself (Mentha), but also lavender (Lavandula), thyme (Thymus), lemon balm (Melissa), horehound (Marrubium), rosemary (Rosmarinus), and sage (Salvia). These fragrant plants are valuable not only in the garden but also in perfumes and potpourris. And yes, they're all mint.
Many plants in the mint family grow so vigorously they are considered invasive, especially Mentha. The perennial obedient plant (Phystostegia) earned its common name because of its poseable stems, not its obedient habit, but cultivars are often more easily controlled than the species. In some cases, as in the ground covering Ajuga and Lamium, the spreading habit is a plus. Even Lamium and Ajuga can become weedy if planted in their native form, but cultivated forms abound that have superior ornamental characteristics and more controlled spreading habits.
Colorful flowers are a feature of many mint plants, including bee balm (Monarda), lavender (Lavandula), obedient plant (Phystostegia), annual and perennial forms of sage (Salvia), catmint (Nepeta), the Lamiaceae also contains many plants with exceptional foliage. These include Ajuga, coleus (Solenostemon), Lamium, Plectranthus, Perilla, Salvia and Stachys, just to name a few.
Anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) combines several ornamental features, including attractive flowers and licorice-scented foliage, and the award-winning cultivar 'GoldenJubilee' tops these off with vividly colored foliage. Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia), which will grow into a shrub, offers both striking foliage and spiky lavender-blue flowers. Like many mints, Russian sage will draw bees to your garden—a good thing for flowers, but bear this in mind if anyone with bee allergies will be near the plant bed.
Most mints are easy to transplant, adaptable to a variety of soil and climate conditions, and easy to find. Some mints are susceptible to powdery mildew, so give them plenty of air circulation—don't crowd these plants. Once established, most mints are tolerant of heat and drought.