GRETA’S HERBS: MINT
Mentha species; this fantastic group of herbs belong to the extensive Labiatae or Lamiaceae family. Some of its relatives include Lavender, Basil, Lemon Balm and Oreganos, all with extremely pungent flavours but none as persistent and diverse as their mint cousins. There are hundreds of varieties which are often difficult to identify as mints interbreed readily. Usually the best way is by simply smelling but even that can be confusing at times. Their origins tend to come from all corners of the globe and mint is used abundantly in worldwide cuisines. It gets plenty of mention in Greek and Roman mythology and there are also biblical references. It has been regarded as a symbol of hospitality and adornment by many cultures and its many uses range from deterring insects to scenting our bath water. I recently enjoyed reading this reference to Mint ‘Eau de Cologne; ‘I live on a farm with pigs etc., which attract a great number of flies and wasps. Since buying the Eau de Cologne plants they have grown and spread out. I just pinch and rub the leaves to release scent and wait. The flies and wasps after a while get a drunk effect and then drop down dead, truly amazing, seeing is believing.’
Mentha spicata which is spearmint is the main variety for mint sauce. It is also the mint used in mojitos, toothpaste and confectionery. Strangely enough Mentha aquatica (watermint) which grows happily in my pond is a parent of many varieties and a cross between it and Mentha spicata created the wonderful hybrid Mentha x piperita (peppermint). Again this variety exudes a glorious aroma and flavour which makes it ideal for desserts and teas. The chocolate variety of this is M. piperita f. citrate which excites everyone especially children. All mints love rich, moist soil in partial shade and are ideal in our climate. They need to be restrained as their underground rhizomes spread everywhere and it can become a proper nuisance. Either grow it in containers or line your planting hole with a sheet of thick polythene, slightly pierced to prevent water logging. Mentha suaveolens (Woolly or Applemint) is a very decorative variety and has lovely pale, mauve flowers which attract bees and butterflies. There is also a variegated version and again a host of relatives, my latest addition is ‘Grapefruit mint’.
When discussing the mint clan we must not forget one of its major contributions to chemistry which is ‘Menthol’. This organic compound is derived from peppermint and other mint oils. It has an incredible array of uses, especially in dental products such as mouth wash hence giving that cool, refreshing sensation which is also slightly anaesthetic. It can also be used in a marvelous array of cosmetics and toiletries even though I suspect modern science now allows artificial compounds to dominate.