Everywhere A Mint Mint

by Sharon Brown on May 1, 2017

in General,Guest Writers,Monthly Post

Everywhere a mint mint! With apologies to Old MacDonald, let’s dig a little deeper into the invasive tactics of a delightful herb named mentha.

Did you ever have a friend who had a few annoying habits but she was the first person you called when you had a problem? The same is often true of pets. You have a dog, the greatest dog on the planet, but occasionally she nibbles your favorite shoe, eats your garden hat, or gnaws the check you intended to cash. Same goes for plants; we have a love/hate relationship with some of them. Mint is one of those plants.

A few decades ago when I moved to Western Kentucky from the Appalachian mountains, my grandmother gave me some of her seeds: white half runners, early peas, heirloom tomatoes, things like that. She also gave me a few plants, and among them were irises, daylilies, a shrub, a tiny rooted redbud tree, and two little sprigs of rooted mint. All these things, she said, were necessary to a granddaughter who had a new home. She reminded me to save seeds every year, she reminded me to water, and she reminded me to keep the mint in large pots that were sunk into the ground. I saved the seeds, I watered profusely, but I didn’t have a large pot that I wanted to sink into the ground, so I planted the two little mints, one spearmint and one peppermint, in a small spot in the little garden at the east end of my house. Wrong. Oh. So. Wrong! Every morning I could tell that the mint had traveled westward another few inches, following the sun, and was gaining ground quickly.
There are many varieties of mentha, but I was told only that my plants were spearmint and peppermint. Both of them had always been used by my family in the same way, as medicine and as flavor for foods. Both spearmint and peppermint make a delicious tea. Fresh or dried leaves from either flavor will liven up a salad. Fresh sprigs of mint not only look pretty in your favorite crystal water goblet, but if you add a slice of lemon, you’ve added the distinct flavor of summer to your drink.

As for your health, mint has been used for centuries to calm an upset tummy, to ease troubled breathing, and to freshen breath. Swipe a slightly crushed mint leaf across your teeth after brushing to help with whitening. It works every time.

Long long ago in a land far away, dried mint leaves were stuffed into straw mattresses and into feather pillows to encourage sweet dreams (while also ridding them of bed bugs). Those same dried mint leaves were often strewn on the floor and left laying for a while, simply to spread the scent throughout a lady’s bedchamber. At the same time, you could find dried mint leaves in food cabinets to deter pests. I often combine it with rosemary in my kitchen cabinets and I find it works about as well as anything else.

So, along with giving me the daylilies and irises and redbuds and such, my grandmother sent me to my new home with mint. And as I was leaving she reminded me: “Now don’t forget the story!” I don’t think I ever forgot a story that was ever told to me and I certainly wouldn’t forget a love story. I’ll share it with you.

Remember Pluto? No, not the cartoon talking dog. Pluto was a character in Greek mythology. Of course, when it was told to me it was just a magical story. Greek mythology never did make its way up the holler in the Southern Appalachians where I grew up, except as a magical story. So as the magical story goes, Pluto, the Greek character, had a girlfriend named Menthe and his wife, Persephone, did not like it one bit. Persephone, being a bit put out and acting in anger that only a jealous and scorned wife would know, turned Menthe into a ground crawling plant. There’s nothing worse than a ground crawler, spending the rest of her life with her nose in the dirt. Now Pluto, even though powerful (remember, he hangs out in the heavens now), couldn’t change Persephone’s curse, but he did bestow upon Menthe the ability to reach upward and to sweeten the air whenever her leaves were caressed. I’m sure Persephone never let Pluto forget what he had done, but she couldn’t undo his powers either. That was obviously not a marriage made in heaven. So Menthe is now spending forever on the ground, but reaching upward toward Pluto in heaven, and spreading her scent whenever we touch her. What a great story!

Bernini’s “Pluto and Persephone”

Anyway, I am a sucker for love stories, so of course I remembered it. What I forgot was the lesson it taught: Mentha grows just about anywhere and everywhere and quickly! I planted those two little rooted sprigs in a corner when I got to my new home. And they loved it. They loved it so much that they rooted around until they filled in every space, all along the east wall, along the south wall, and the west wall, and now they are making their way to the northern front. I’ve managed to stop them at the driveway and at the magnolia on the opposite northern corner. Frankly I could have mint juleps any time of the year and enough to serve to all of you, not only during the Kentucky Derby Week in May. Problem is, all the root runners have formed an under-the-soil-surface root mat that surrounds three sides of my house.  I’m kept pretty busy just digging and pulling up roots, but it sure smells good while I dig and pull, thanks to the magical powers of Pluto!

Like the rest of its family, mint has square hollow stems and my spearmint has slightly fuzzy leaves. I suspect they’ve also cross pollinated, but I can usually tell the difference by looking at the leaves. Peppermint leaves are glossy and hairless. Good thing I can tell the difference because I like spearmint best for my mint juleps. Some mints grow low to the ground, but I probably have forms of what’s known as mountain mint or field mint, and if I don’t keep it cut back and in some sort of bush form, it can grow more than three feet tall. Cutting it back keeps it bushier, and although the blooms are nice in appearance, I rarely let it bloom because the leaves have a bitter flavor when the plant forms blooms. By the way, field mint is native to the U.S. Some say that field mint doesn’t come in different flavors, but I definitely have spearmint and peppermint, each with that distinctive leaf, each growing well over three feet, one with very pale lavender blooms and the other with white spikes. They also both came from my grandmother’s long-ago garden in the mountains. Somewhere along the way, there must have been some cross pollination with field mint.

I swear by this little secret and not many know this, but I’ll share it with you: In the corner where I have mint and tansy planted together, there is a rose nearby. That rose has never ever seen a Japanese beetle. Never! They won’t come near it, nor will any other pest, because the mint and tansy together form a perfect bug barrier for the roses. Bunnies don’t like it much either, but I suspect it’s the tansy they don’t like. Works against mosquitoes as well and I’ve decided it’s the combination of the two scents working together that deters a lot of things.

However, even with this plus, don’t plant your mint directly into your gardens. Just don’t. It will spread to the ends of the earth and back, with you down on your hands and knees chasing it, just as Menthe did, until Pluto finally gave her the ability to grow upright. Just plant it in pots so that the roots are contained, and then you will love it because it truly is a good plant to have around.

Place the pots around your vegetable garden and among your roses and add a sprig of tansy to the pots. It won’t be long before you might notice a difference in your pest population. When May rolls around, when the horses in Kentucky are Running for the Roses, you can sit back and sip a Mint Julep with me.

Sharon Brown, native of the Appalachians of East Kentucky, is known for her articles about wildflowers, plants, and Kentucky culture and history. Enjoy Sharon’s other articles HERE.

Photo credits: Thumbnail, Sharon Brown; first in-text, image, SongofJoy; flowering mint, Toshiyuki IMAI; above right, Sue Hixson; tansy, S. Rae; and mint julep, Bradley Stemke.

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