If you’ve only got one herb in your garden I bet its Mint. Mint is so evocative of a British summer – essential with new potatoes, lamb, peas and Pimms! I almost wondered whether it was too obvious to feature, but decided it was worth it in case it helped you find another use for a herb you are already growing or perhaps a new variety to grow.
You will be aware, even if just from choosing toothpaste or chewing gum, that there are two main types – Spearmint (Mentha spicata) and Peppermint (Mentha piperita). Spearmint, the one that nearly everyone has in their garden, in also known, of course, as Common Mint or Garden Mint.
Peppermint is the one from which the essential oils are extracted to make confectionery and is the one that earned England its reputation for producing the best mint in the world –as evidenced by the Italian, French and German names for it of Mentha d’Angleterre, Mentha Anglais and Englisheminze respectively. There is no record of peppermint being used before the English naturalist John Ray published a description of the plant in 1696. The medicinal qualities were quickly appreciated and from the 1750s up until the Second World War, when only essential crops could be grown, an area of south London specialised in growing Black Mitcham peppermint. Following the war it was completely lost to the UK and was only reintroduced, from Montana in the United States, in the mid 1990s. Sir Michael Colman, of mustard family fame, is the person responsible for its reintroduction and distilling on a commercial scale. The oil can now be bought from some food stores or on line at www.summerdownmint.com.
Whilst distilling the oil is not something you can do at home I now grow this variety for its heritage interest and find it makes a very effective digestive tea. A sorbet made with it works similarly well at the end of a meal. Peppermint is also the variety with the strongest medicinal qualities. In addition to being an aid to digestion (and incidentally, if you have hiccups just one good sniff of a mint tea can cure them) Peppermint also has strong antiseptic, antibacterial and anti-bacterial properties. I wouldn’t know quite how to prescribe it for these purposes, but these properties do make it a useful companion plant warding off all manner of pests from your plants. A peppermint tea is also recommended for nervous headaches and to increase concentration. If you are looking to buy Black Mitcham peppermint, make sure you buy it from a reliable source as now that interest has been revived there have been some incidents of other peppermints, hybrids imported mainly from China, being passed off as Black Mitcham. Here is one on-line source you can trust http://www.arneherbs.co.uk/mint.asp.
The mint family is large but because it is a very invasive plant you probably won’t want to grow many of them. If however what you are growing is “common or garden mint” then you have some scope for improvement. By far my favourite variety of spearmint for general culinary use is Moroccan Mint, and it’s popularity is catching on judging by how much easier it is to buy now than when I first obtained it. It has a lovely clean flavour that holds throughout the season, as well as being better able to cope with drier conditions than our native spearmint. You can use it whenever you would usually use mint in British cuisine, but it also enables us to make the dishes we have come to love from its Middle Eastern homeland such as Moroccan style Mint Tea, Tabbouleh and a cucumber and yoghurt dip.
I’m not a great fan of mints-that-taste-of-something-else, although I recognise the novelty value and if you have a particular favourite mint combination amongst the following they might be worth growing: Chocolate mint, Pineapple Mint, Basil Mint, Apple Mint. In my opinion the best of these is the Apple Mint, perhaps because I do use apples quite a bit, but it does have a good, if subtle, flavour.
A quite different type of mint is Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii). I think the main attraction of this popular mint is its size i.e. tiny, and of course that is a consideration in many gardens. For its size it packs a powerful peppermint flavour and because it grows naturally in cracks of rock it is particularly suited to rock gardens or paths. It needs shade and a moist soil.
In considering whether you have room to grow mint you will need to remember its habit of spreading. For this reason mint is often grown in containers – I grow mine in an old tin bath, old sinks also seem to be popular mint containers. If you do contain the mint you will need to replace the soil every couple of years. Dig, or tip out, the contents of your container and then select just a few roots to replant in fresh soil. Corsican Mint does not set root runners, so if you want to increase the amount you have, dig up a section in spring and divide it by easing the plant gently apart.
Another consideration is the tendency of different varieties to hybridise, so if you are growing more than one variety they need to be planted well apart.
To keep mint bushing out rather than just shooting skywards, pinch out the top shoots when picking.
Cooking with Mint
Mint can be used both raw and briefly cooked. It is particularly good with green summer vegetables –e.g. asparagus, peas, broad beans and courgettes. Use it liberally. Click on the link below to see my recipe suggestions.
Tabbouleh (Lebanese Parsley and Mint Salad)
Tzatziki (Yoghurt, Mint and Cucumber Dip)
Pea and Mint soup
Black Mitcham Peppermint Sorbet
Fresh Peppermint Chocolate Truffles