Gardening with Jane McLeod: In mint condition

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— Choosing culinary herbs for your garden is a pleasant task, and personally, I put mint in the fun-to-have category as opposed to, say, tarragon, which in my herb patch falls in the must-have category. However, when you see the list of mints — apple, chocolate, orange, lemon, pineapple, ginger, Persian and more — maybe becoming a connoisseur of mints would be a worthwhile undertaking some summer. Think of any one of those chopped finely and mixed into vanilla ice cream that's drizzled with chocolate sauce.

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Courtesy photo

Jane McLeod

From a very large family of about 25 to 30 species and hundreds of varieties (they hybridize easily and frequently), mint without a qualifier generally refers to spearmint (Mentha spicata). This and peppermint (Mentha piperita) probably are the two best-known mints, adding refreshing flavor to jellies, sauces, candies, gum, ice creams and other desserts and drinks. Mint has a strong flavor and choosing a variety is dependent on personal taste and culinary use. For dishes other than sweets and desserts, most consider spearmint the crown jewel of the mint world, though others hold that the milder tasting apple mint is the best with which to cook.

Mints are hardy and easily grown ranging in height from 1 to 3 feet with small flower spikes in shades from white to pink and violet. Unlike most herbs with a Mediterranean ancestry, mints like some shade and moist soil rich in nutrients. If grown in full sun, water well in dry weather. You usually will see "vigorous growth habit" as a descriptor on mint, so instead of coaxing it along, you really need to keep the fast-spreading roots contained before they overrun neighboring plants. Mint really wants to be a ground cover, and if you don’t harvest it regularly, it will benefit from a good shearing of one-half to one-third of the plant in midseason to encourage fresh growth and to keep it from invading your garden. Propagate by taking root or stem cuttings or divide the plant in spring and autumn. Remove all flowering stems to avoid cross-pollination between species.

Originally from the Mediterranean and known for centuries for culinary seasoning and medicinal uses (easing upset stomachs, relieving hiccups and nausea, preventing fainting) mints traveled with explorers and settlers to most countries of the world where it now is cultivated and naturalized. It is even part of ancient Greek mythology with Menthe, a nymph beloved by Pluto turned into mint by Proserpine, Pluto’s jealous wife. Long regarded as a sacred herb, mint was laid in rooms and places of recreation, pleasure and repose. Even with the start Proserpine gave it, mint somehow became a symbol of hospitality, and I suppose that carries to this day as a tall glass of tea or lemonade with a lovely fresh sprig of mint is a welcoming sight to any visitor.

Jane McLeod is a Colorado master gardener with the CSU Extension Routt County. Contact 970-879-0825 or csumgprogram@co.routt.co.us for more information.

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