Sunday, June 14, 2009

Keep Your Garden Minty Fresh

Mint is unquestionably the dominant flavor of our everyday world. It seems that you can’t leave the house without dealing with mint-flavored dental floss, toothpaste, and mouthwash, and even mint-scented shampoo.

Recently, many of us watched the Kentucky Derby while sipping mint juleps, or enjoyed an after dinner mint – maybe even one of those too-sweet crème de menthe cordials. Then there are the breath mints, chewing gums, and so on.

Actually, it’s not too surprising that mint enjoys such incredible popularity. For more than 2,500 years, mint has been renowned for its refreshing aroma and medicinal qualities. Pliny credits mint with curing 41 assorted ailments, and pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), a mint-cousin, with treating another 20.

Ancient Greeks used wreathes of mint for everything from adorning brides to staving off the effects of a wine-laden bacchanal. Greeks and Romans both employed it to scent bath water, and even suggested its use as an aphrodisiac. A more sober Aristotle actually cautioned against letting soldiers use mint concerned that it would weaken their aggressiveness.

From curing stomach aches, dandruff, snakebite, and roundworms to dispelling fleas and amorous dreams, there was a mint for every purpose.

For gardeners, much the same can be said, considering that there are about 20 species of mint and approximately 1,000 interesting hybrids. Even a run-of-the-mill garden or seed catalog will probably offer about one dozen choices, although the most popular continue to be spearmint and peppermint.

With as many fragrant and culinary applications as there are for mint, it is surprising that more gardens do not boast at least a few useful varieties. Unfortunately, mint has developed a somewhat justifiably bad reputation as an aggressive plant capable of spreading throughout an entire bed – or yard.

However, it is easy enough to keep this hardy perennial under control by simply growing it in containers, and never planting it directly into garden soil. In fact, an herb garden can look quite striking with several decorative terracotta pots set in place among other plantings. The pots alone will add an air of formality and height to the bed, as will the one to two-foot tall spikes of pale lavender or pinkish-lilac flowers favored by bees and butterflies alike.

Beyond the medicinal benefits touted by ancients like Dioscorides, mints can play a central role in fun and fanciful kitchen recipes. For example, you can pinch off a handful of the creamy-white variegated leaves of pineapple mint and toss them into a mixed green salad.

Use leaves of orange mint to flavor your favorite cup of herbal tea, adding the distinctive bergamot flavor you will recognize from Earl Grey. Also, any strongly-flavored mint will add zest to a refreshing pitcher of iced tea or lemonade. And peppermint leaves can be mixed with fresh-grated ginger to create a soothing yet invigorating tea. Naturally, bourbon and horse fanciers will migrate toward a table offering frosted tumblers of mint juleps. In fact, an old friend from Kentucky makes a point of always having a whiskey barrel planter full of mint at hand, both for Derby Day and warm summer evenings.

Spearmint mixed with bulgar wheat, red onions, tomatoes, parsley, and a lemon-vinaigrette makes for a delicious tabbouleh, the Lebonese national salad. It can also be added to omelets, soufflés, or your favorite quiche recipe.

Peppermint is probably the best variety for drying, and coarsely –ground leaves add a delicious new complexity to steamed carrots, new potatoes, eggplant, or black beans, as well as baked chicken or poached fish dishes.

Curly mint is favored by chefs as a garnish for desserts created with chocolate or fresh fruits, although chocolate mint is also a nice option and a wonderful and tasty surprise for visitors to your garden.

Mint can also become a dessert in itself, either as a simple sorbet, or incorporated into brownies, chocolate cake batter, or the ever-popular grasshopper pie.

Some mint species also have a handsome place in the landscape. For the edge of ponds or even soggy, moist areas in your garden, water or bog mint (Mentha aquatica) is ideal, although it can spread rapidly. It is also one of the mints best known and prized in antiquity, and can be used in teas and salads, although the menthol overtones are a bit too strong for some palates.

For a strong-scented ground cover, consider Corsican mint, a fast- spreading plant with tiny leaves which enjoys being walked upon. Use it in somewhat shaded areas between paving stones instead of mulch, gravel, or grass, and tuck it into nooks and crannies in stone retaining walls. Pennyroyal is a sun-loving groundcover with a lemony aroma, sometimes used in small amounts to flavor meat and fish dishes.

With just a bit of experimentation, you may find yourself as enthralled with mint as were the classical botanists, although you will happily find that your choices exceed theirs by many hundreds.

Copyright 2009, Joseph M. Keyser

An Abbreviated Menu of Mints

Apple Mint
Austrian Mint
Banana Mint
Chinese Mint
Chocolate Mint
Corsican Mint
English Mint
Ginger Mint
Grapefruit Mint
Hillary's Sweet Lemon Mint
Japanese Lime Mint
Orange Mint
Pennyroyal Mint
Peppermint Variegated
Pineapple Mint
Curled Spearmint
Menthol Mint
Improved Spearmint
Scotch Spearmint
Silver Mint
Swiss Mint
Vietnamese Mint
Water Mint
Korean Mint
Jamaican Mint
Mountain Mint
Roman Mint

1 comment:

Cianoy said...

Hello there! I'm a recent convert of the mint loving society. ;-)

I have three varieties: chocolate, Japanese and peppermint. Looks like I have ways to go before I get to a dozen, but I'll enjoy getting there.

Chris and his Chocolate Mint