Lamiaceae (Mint family, formerly Labiatae)
No herb is more widely known than the fragrant mint. The herb that flavors our toothpaste, breath fresheners, cough drop and chewing gum invokes a cool, refreshing feeling. Over 600 varieties of mint are known. All plants feature square stems, opposite leaf arrangement, and flowers in terminal heads, spikes or whorled arrangement. The leaves usually are creased, serrated, round to oval, and pointed at the tip. Purple, pink or white blooms appear in mid- to late-summer. Varieties most popular include:
Cultivation Mints grow well in the Houston area given proper growing conditions. They prefer rich, moist soil, and sun to partial shade. In our scorching summers, the plants tend to go into "hibernation," but will reappear when cooler temperatures resume. Plants will thrive if provided with a boost of organic matter such as decayed manure or a well-balanced fertilizer. Apply fertilizer when mint is in "hibernation." Mints require a steady water supply, but don't care to have wet feet. They seek the available light, so they tend to get leggy when planted in shady spots. Seeds are readily available, but not recommended, since plants true to the parent are difficult to come by. Flowers and seed heads should be immediately pinched back to prevent cross-bred plants in your garden. Mints are propagated easily by cuttings, division, or layering. Because mints send out invasive runners just below the soil surface, it is a good idea to surround the plant with a 10" deep barrier like plastic landscape border. Plants are readily available in Houston nurseries.
Mint is susceptible to rust disease. Rust shows up as orange freckles on the lower foliage and stems. If signs of rust appear, the plants should be dug up and destroyed. Mints are more likely to meet their demise as snail or slug fodder, than from a bout of rust. The best remedy for ridding your plants of snails is to hand pick the critters in the early morning as they return to their shady hiding places for the day. Don't smash snails since they are likely to be full of eggs that will survive the impact. Instead, drown them in a bucket of dilute ammonia solution. Slugs can be conquered by luring them to an overturned pot in a dark moist spot. After several days the inside of the pot will covered with slugs. The pot can then be dunked in the dilute ammonia solution.
Harvesting and Uses Frequent harvesting is good for mints. They will be much bushier and more attractive. Young, tender leaves and stems are better for uses featuring the herb's flavor since older ones tend to be bitter and woody. Leaves can be used either dried or fresh. Fresh leaves are best and should be refrigerated in plastic bags, though only briefly. To dry mint, either lay a thin layer of leaves on paper towels or hang in bundles of 4 to 6 stems, and store in a cool, dry, dark place.
In addition to its popularity as a culinary herb, mint is popular for its use in cosmetics, as a pest repellent, and in potpourri. A strong mint infusion makes a refreshing skin splash or addition to the bath. Mints strewn about rodent -ridden areas are said to keep the rodents away. Pennyroyal rubbed on your pet's fur will help deter fleas.
Mint is ideal for soups, salads, sauces, meats, fish, poultry, stews, chocolate dishes and lemon-y desserts. Peppermint is most often used for teas and sweets. Spearmint is the mint of choice for meat sauces and jellies, and is especially good with vegetables. Spearmint is also used in tea, and is the mint featured in the mint julep. Red stemmed apple mint, with its hybrid spearmint/peppermint taste is an excellent choice for recipes simply calling for mint.
Green Bean Salad with Mint
Wash beans and trim ends; cut into halves or thirds. Parboil by dropping into boiling water 5 minutes. Drain and plunge into ice water 5 minutes; drain and chill.
Combine oil, mint leaves, vinegar, salt, garlic and pepper in food processor or blender and process 20 seconds; set aside. Place beans in large glass bowl and top with toasted walnuts, red onion and feta. Pour dressing over salad and toss before serving. Best if made 2 hours ahead of time or the day before to develop flavors. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
* Place walnuts on cookie sheet or in shallow pan and broil in oven until browned and aromatic, 5 to 10 minutes, stirring and turning once or twice.
History and Folklore Mint has been an important herb since the early starts of civilization. Romans are responsible for carrying the herb throughout Europe. Mint was known to be treasured as an important aromatic herb in medieval times. People scented their baths and strew their homes with mint because of its fresh scent. In the eighteenth century, mint was valued for its medicinal uses. Remedies for everything from colic, to digestive odors, to mad dog bites called for mint. When the colonists came to the New World they brought along their mints for teas for headaches, heartburn, indigestion, gas and insomnia. They also drank mint tea for pleasure, not only because it tasted good, but also because it wasn't taxed.
The species name Mentha is derived from Roman mythology. Minthe was a lovely young nymph who caught the eye of Pluto, the ruler of the underworld. When Pluto's wife Persephone found out about his love for the beautiful nymph, she was enraged. She changed Minthe into a lowly plant, to be trodden underfoot. Pluto couldn't reverse Persephone's curse, but he did soften the spell somewhat by making the smell that Minthe gave off all the sweeter when she was tread upon. The name Minthe has changed to Mentha and become the name of the herb, mint.
As for the origins of mint's reputation as the herb of hospitality, Greek mythology tells us the story. Two strangers were walking through a village. The villagers ignored them and offered neither food nor drink. Finally an old couple, Philemon and Baucis, offered them a meal. Before the four sat down for their meal, the couple rubbed the table with mint leaves to clean and freshen it. The strangers turned out to be the gods Zeus and Hermes in disguise. As a reward for the hospitality Philemon and Baucis had shown them, the gods turned the humble home into a temple. Mint thus became the symbol of hospitality.