May 30, 2009

Minty Fresh

No herb garden is complete without mint. What would Derby day be without that quintessential drink the mint julep? It is a primary ingredient in Greek cuisine, adding a wonderful flavor to lamb dishes. Spring peas with mint is to die for!

Mint belong to the genus Mentha, in the family Labiatae (Lamiaceae) which includes other commonly grown oil-yielding plants such as basil, sage, rosemary, marjoram, lavender, pennyroyal and thyme. Within the genus Mentha there are several different species, varying in their appearance, aroma and end use. The most common ones are spearmint (M. spicata), peppermint (M. × piperita), eau-de-cologne mint (M. × piperita var. citrata) and apple mint (M. rotundifolia). All are low-growing plants, readily sending out runners, or stolons, which develop new roots and shoots at the nodes.

Mints do best in deep, rich soils of friable texture high in organic matter. The preferred pH range is from 6.0–7.5. A higher water requirement means that soils must be deep and well drained while holding plenty of water. That said, mint seems to grow anywhere it pleases.

Mint can be propagated either vegetatively or by seed. Vegetative propagation is achieved by digging up plants in late winter or early spring and dividing them into runners with roots, then replanting. This will prevent the plants from becoming root-bound and prone to disease, ensuring strong, healthy plants for the new season.

Be aware that mint is definitely invasive. It reproduces from long, creeping stems that spread out just under the soil surface whenever they get a chance. If you plant them directly in your garden we recommend you plant it in containers, preferably with bottoms, sunk into the soil. This is probably not going to contain it forever but it will buy you some time. We usually plant our mint in containers on our deck. This keeps it in check and in close proximity to our kitchen. If you're growing in pots remember you will need to water more often and use a diluted water soluble fertilizer since you'll be flushing the nutrients from the soil on a continuous basis.

To list all the available varieties of mint would take more space than we have available! The most commonly available are:
  • Peppermint: sweet, strong mint flavor. It flavors many candies. Shiny, dark green leaves, some with a purple tinge.
  • Spearmint: flavor stronger and less sweet than peppermint. The curly variety is very ornamental. Used to make traditional mint sauce for lamb.
  • Pennyroyal: a ground cover and a very tough plant that spreads quickly. Do not ingest pennyroyal, especially if you're pregnant. It's used as a bug repellent.
  • Corsican Mint: mat-forming ground cover that can be walked upon, releasing its creme de menthe fragrance. Often used to flavor liqueurs, along with peppermint. Tiny, moss-like leaves are bright green, and they appreciate some shade.
Other varieties include scents such as apple, chocolate (my favorite!), orange, pineapple, grapefruit and even banana! For information on more varieties available try Richter's Herbs, Mountain Valley Growers, The Tasteful Garden. If you prefer to grow from seed: The Herb Cottage.

Spearmint, peppermint and applemint sprigs can be added to drinks and fruit dishes as a garnish. It also makes a refreshing tea.
Serve this mint sauce with roasted lamb for a delightful summer meal.

Mint Sauce:
Fresh mint - 4 Tbsp., finely chopped
Boiling water - 3 Tbsp.
sugar - 1 Tbsp.
salt - ¼ tsp
Vinegar - 3 Tbsp.
Stir the mint into the boiling water. Add the sugar and salt.
Leave until cold. Add the vinegar and mix well.

The menthol in peppermint soothes the lining of the digestive tract and stimulates the production of bile, which is an essential digestive fluid. A hot cup of herbal tea is an excellent way to settle your stomach after a big meal. A handful of mint steeped in boiling water for ten minutes is all you need for a comforting mint tea.

To make a facial astringent combine 1 Tbsp. cleane fresh peppermint or spearmint and 1 cup witch hazel in a jar with a tight-fitting lid. Steep in a cool, dry place for one week, shaking occasionally. Strain and pour into a bottle or spritzer to use. Probably best to keep in the fridge if you are not adding preservative and it's a great way to chill out in hot weather. Good for normal to oily skin. Makes about a six-week supply.

Moth Repellent -Tie branches of mint together and wrap lightly in cheesecloth (to avoid flaking). Hang the bundle upside down with a ribbon in your closet.

Make a foot scrub by combining 1 cup unflavored yogurt, 1 cup kosher or rock salt or white sugar and 3/4 cup fresh mint leaves. Apply to feet. Use a damp washcloth to gently scrub rough spots. Rinse feet and apply lotion.

Refreshing Potpourri:
Combine 1/2 cup orris root and 1 Tbsp. of essential oil lavender or peppermint. Add 2 cups each dried orange mint, dried spearmint, dried peppermint, plus 1 cup each dried thyme and rosemary. Combine gently; try not to crush leaves. Store in a covered jar. To use, shake the jar gently, then open.

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