On the damp, shady side of my childhood home, the only things I remember that grew well were fuchsias and a huge patch of mint. It didn’t seem to be used much, only for homemade mint sauce to go with the Sunday lamb roast. As a child, I didn’t take much notice of the garden and I was well into adulthood before I realised that ‘common mint’ was not the only variety of mint in the world!
Over the past few years, we have grown several varieties of mint apart from the most common spearmint: pennyroyal, apple mint, pepper mint, and, my favourite scent of them all, chocolate mint. Mint doesn’t cope well in really hot weather, which may be why it grows well in damp, shady areas. I have seen chocolate mint standing in water at the garden centre of the local hardware shop, in the same tub where the more commonly recognised water-loving plants are sold.
While it is an excellent ground-cover, the one thing all mint seems to have in common is its tendency to take over an area of the garden. That’s why we grow our mint in pots. Like all plants in pots, watering is really important, the plant relies on the gardener to supply its needs, it cannot send out more roots looking for water.
Grown in a pot, the plant can be moved into full sun in winter, and a shady area in summer. If you place the pot where you brush against the plant, the fragrance will fill the air, bringing pleasure to you and keeping insect pests, such as mosquitos and flies, at bay. Dried mint sprigs are said to deter ants.
Mint makes a delicious and refreshing tea, with or without sugar. It adds a delightful tang to vegetable smoothies and, of course, has long been used to garnish drinks, especially cocktails. We put leaves in the water to make ice cubes which are then floated in the punch bowl for our non-alcoholic punch.
Traditionally, mint was used to treat stomach ache, indigestion and a host of intestinal disorders. It is a natural breath freshener, which is why it is used to flavour such things as toothpaste and chewing gum.
Mint is a creeping herb, from the family, Laminaceae. It has slightly hairy, aromatic leaves which grow opposite each other along square stems. The flowers are very attractive to pollinators. It is, in most parts of western Sydney, an evergreen but it can ‘disappear’ in very cold winters and re-appear in Spring, especially if being grown in full shade. It favours a part-shade position, where it gets protection from strong afternoon sunlight in summer. The eastern side of the house, or in the shade of a trellis or trees, is ideal.
Many herbs have the same scientific name for all varieties; for example, the different basil plants we grow are all Ocimum basilicum, and both flat and curly leaf parsley are petroselimium crispum. This indicates, in the case of basil and parsley, that they are both of the same species and the same genus.
On the other hand, there are many different genera of mint. What I have always known as ‘mint’ (that plant of my childhood), is also known as ‘common mint’ or ‘garden mint’. It is, in fact, spearmint, Mentha spicata. Penny Royal is Mentha pulegium, apple mint is Mentha suavolens, peppermint is Mentha piperita, and chocolate mint is a variety of peppermint, Mentha x piperita f. citrata ‘Chocolate’! Confusing, isn’t it? Luckily, we don’t have to know the scientific names to enjoy the aromas and the flavours.
Peter Oldfield, a grower in Devon, grows one of England’s ‘national collections’ of mint. In 2014, he was listed as having over 200 different varieties of mint! (National Mentha Collections)
HOW TO GROW MINT
It is possible to grow mint from seed but I have found that it is not easy to germinate. It is much easier to buy a pot of mint at the garden centre or to find a friend who has the variety you want and ask for a piece or two. Try to get pieces with roots on them but, if not, simply place the cutting in water and in as little as a few days, roots will start appearing from the nodes on the stems. Change the water every couple of days so it doesn’t get slimy and smelly.
Pot the rooted pieces in a good quality potting mix, with some additional cocopeat (coir) to hold extra moisture. Mulch the surface of the potting mix to keep the moisture in and place the pot in a spot where it gets morning sun but is protected from the harsh afternoon sun of summer. In winter, you can move the pot into full sun. The most important thing is to ensure that your mint stays constantly moist.
FUN FINAL FACT
There are six Australian native mint species. Mentha diemenica is endemic to the Cumberland Plains woodland which once covered much of western Sydney. The plant is available commercially.
I’ll be back next Friday, in the meantime, why not read our daily (except Sunday) hints and tips (Q&A) posts?
DISCLAIMER: The information presented in this blog post is written for general knowledge and/or entertainment purposes only. Please do further research if you are unfamiliar with this plant. While all care is taken to be accurate, Hillside Homegrown & Handmade accepts no responsibility for actions taken by the reader because of information shared in this article.