Mints are refreshing and easy to grow. Try cultivating a few varieties — chocolate, orange or ginger mint, anyone?
It's one of those perfect June days in Ohio. It’s warm but not hot, and the roses are at their peak. Your guests are sitting in lovely, white wicker chairs on the front porch and you offer tall glasses of iced tea. Your friends are charmed by the ice cubes, each with a beautiful spearmint leaf frozen in the center.
Then you coyly admit that you picked the mint fresh from your garden that morning. Oh, you are so Martha Stewart-ish! But, in truth, mint can make most anyone look like an accomplished gardener or a gourmet cook.
Ask someone to close his or her eyes. Place a crushed spearmint or peppermint leaf in your open hand and let that person breath in the scent. Almost without fail the individual will correctly say, “Mint!” The plant’s scent is one of the most recognizable in the world. Mint has been used as a culinary, medicinal and ornamental herb from the time of the Egyptians.
We are bombarded with mint’s fragrance and taste from birth. Mint oil, according to the Mint Industry Research Council, is one of the “very few remaining all-natural flavorings.” It is found in gum, candy, toothpaste, mouthwash, pharmaceuticals and more. Mint is also used in aromatherapy and piped through ventilation systems in offices to improve alertness.
The more than 3,000 species in the mint family typically have square stems and contain essential oils. But “true” mints are only those that belong to the Mentha genus. Spearmint and peppermint are the most widely known true mints and both can be grown in Ohio. Other fascinating plants in the mint family include apple, lime, lemon and pineapple mints. Some gardeners collect mints like others collect charms for bracelets.
“Anyone with a brown thumb can grow mint,” says Pam Bennett, statewide volunteer master gardener coordinator for the Ohio State University Extension and a home mint grower. “Mints like well-drained soil and thrive on neglect. They don’t want to be fertilized or babied or overwatered.”
What about the idea that different mints should not be grown next to each other because flavors will muddle? Bennett says not to worry too much because “a plant is a plant and unless it is genetically changed it won’t matter if mints are close to each other.”
Mint plants should not be started from seeds because they may not have the same fragrance, leaf shape, coloration or strength of the “true” plant. Better to start with cuttings or runners, according to organic growers Mark and Karen Langan, owners of Mulberry Creek Herb Farm in Huron ( mulberry creek.com). The Langans sell a variety of mints at their farm, in stores and at plant fairs across Ohio. The farm’s 15th annual Herb Fair is June 23–24 and features mints and other herbs for sale, entertainment, workshops and gourmet and picnic food.
Chocolate mint is the farm’s best seller. The couple is not too fond of some of the newest varieties of mint, which they say can have a disagreeable aroma. Instead, they prefer the more familiar orange mint (which grows wild along the boardwalk at Maumee Bay State Park), ginger mint, super silver mint and Kentucky Colonel spearmint (think mink julep).
“Doublemint is a cross between peppermint and spearmint and has both flavors. It’s for people who can’t make up their minds,” says Mark Langan.
Dante Tropea owns Mint Brook Meadow Teas in Dalton ( mintbrookmeadows.com), where he grows 20 acres of mints. It’s the largest commercial mint farm in Ohio. The acreage is half spearmint and half peppermint (the stronger of the two mints because it contains menthol). Tropea is also experimenting with lemon balm, another mint. Tropea grows the herbs for his tea business, which includes Peppermint & Spearmint, Green, Garden Mint and other varieties under his private label. Every 10,000 pounds of harvested wet mint leaves translates into 1,000 pounds of tea leaves.
Visitors to the new Mint Brook Meadow Café and retail shop in Dalton can look through large observation windows into Tropea’s production facility to see mint being processed.
Tropea says mint is “programmed” to spread, which is good for his business. But that is not always welcome news to home gardeners trying to contain the mint that seems destined to eat the entire state of Ohio. Suggestions for controlling the invasive plant include planting mint in vertical sunken tile drain pipes or sunken plastic utility buckets with drainage holes at the bottom. Deer don’t usually like mint, but butterflies do, Tropea says, so it’s a great plant to use on a deck or patio in pretty pots.
Mint leaves can be picked soon after they appear and anytime during the growing season. Flowers on mint plants should be clipped unless you like the pretty blossoms and want to make the bees happy. After harvesting, mint leaves can be frozen (although some leaves may turn black) or dried.
“You have to get the water out of the leaves, but the faster you take the water out, the greater chance you are taking oils and flavor with it,” says Tropea. “So the old-fashioned idea of cutting mint and hanging it in the shade or out of the sun in attic or barn where it can slowly dry is best. Don’t let moisture re-enter the plant. If you hang it on a porch, dew gets on it and then it dries, taking more flavor with it. Also, if you dry leaves on a kitchen counter, you’ll get a little influence of all the flavors and aromas in that room.”
Mint can be used fresh or dried to create distinctive food and beverages. Sue Facenbaker, president of the Quail Hollow Herbal Society at Quail Hollow State Park in Hartville, likes to chop fresh chocolate mint to add to cake mix. Facenbaker also makes a “sugary mint syrup” flavoring for cookies and frosting. Mint, she adds, is considered a great companion for lamb and pork and makes an unusual sweet or tart jelly.
And don’t forget the therapeutic properties of mint. Toss a handful of spearmint leaves into a foot bath of hot water and let the water cool a bit, allowing the leaves to infuse. Or sprinkle a handful of leaves on top of warm bath water. Then, breathe deeply and relax.
Seven Interesting Mints
• apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) — sweet-scented perennial used for tea and jelly; easy mint to grow indoors
• banana mint (Mentha arvenis ‘Banana’) — smells more like a banana peel than banana fruit; culinary and ornamental uses
• chocolate mint (Mentha piperita ‘Chocolate’) — a chocolate lover’s favorite; use in cakes, candy and drinks; attractive plant in any garden
• Corsican mint (Mentha requienii) — pretty tiny, oval leaves; nonedible mint that should be considered an annual unless grown inside; smells like crème-de-menthe
• English lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) — oil used for toiletries; flowers for sachets and potpourris
• peppermint (Mentha x piperita) — a hybrid with pink or lavender flowers used as a flavoring or for medicinal purposes, including stomach aches
• spearmint (Mentha spicata) – widely used for culinary and medicinal uses; Kentucky Colonel has large crinkly leaves; Crispa (curly mint) has rounder leaves
Courtesy of home economist Jane Rogers
Chocolate Mint Syrup
Makes 1-1/4 cups
Use this delicious syrup to pour over ice cream or to flavor coffee, milk or hot chocolate.
3/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
3/4 cup sugar
2 pinches of salt
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup fresh peppermint leaves, rinsed, patted dry
(spearmint may be substituted)
Mix cocoa, sugar and salt in a 1-1/2 quart saucepan.
Add cold water and whisk until smooth. Add mint leaves and bring to a gentle boil. Stir to dissolve sugar, being careful it does not overflow as it boils. Reduce heat. Stir occasionally while it simmers for five to eight minutes and becomes glossy and thickened.
Allow to cool to room temperature. Strain mint leaves. Store in a clean jar and refrigerate up to 10 days.
Mint Tea Cooler
Makes 5 cups (40 ounces)
Drink this minty, citrus-flavored beverage to refresh your spirits.
2 tea bags (a quality black tea works fine, or try with green or oolong teas)
1/2 cup rinsed peppermint or spearmint leaves
1/2 cup sugar
3 cups boiling water
1/2 cup orange juice
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice (or 1 lemon)
optional garnish: slice of lemon, sprig of edible mint
Place tea bags, mint leaves and sugar into teapot. Pour boiling water into the pot and cover with lid. After eight minutes, remove tea bags. Remove lid and allow tea and mint to brew until cooled.
Add orange and lemon juices. Stir until sugar is dissolved and refrigerate. When chilled and ready to drink, strain out mint and discard leaves. Serve with ice cubes. and optional garnishes.