Some plants are just oh-so-satisfying to grow. They perform effortlessly with little care and grow in just about any spot they are placed. No, I am not writing about dandelions but about one of my very favorite herbs, mint. On this first Saturday in May, mint is a timely topic. As you probably know today is the Kentucky Derby; and the official (since 1938) cocktail of the Derby is the mint julep. Mint is incredibly easy to grow, fun to use and no herb garden is complete without it. The mint family, Lamiaceae or Labiatae, is richly diverse and includes most favorite herbs: basil, rosemary, sage, lavender, marjoram, oregano and of course, mint.
While all related, no member of this family grows as easily or quickly as mint (mentha). In fact, mint grows so easily and spreads so well due to underground stolons (or runners), that it is often considered invasive. As a prolific perennial, it is important to realize if mint is not planted in a contained space both above and underground it will easily cover that area. For that reason, I advocate growing mint in a container.
In terms of care, mint is quite easy. Ideal conditions for mint are cool, moist soil and partial shade; however, it will grow in full sun and tolerate shade. Personally, I have grown mint in window sills, filtered shade, partial shade, and full sun successfully. The most common variety of mint is spearmint, mentha spicata, which has a long history of being used to perfume beauty products, as well as flavor baked goods, cocktails, sweet tea and very commonly, toothpaste. The culinary uses for mint are virtually endless: sweet or savory, from American to Moroccan and breakfast to dinner. Perhaps this wide range of uses for this popular herb is because it seems to grow faster than it can be used. The essential oil from mint is also commonly used in the beauty industry. Because mint essential oil has anti-fungal properties, it is used in natural shampoos and conditioners as a preservative. In herbalism, mint has been used to help stomach ailments for thousands of years.
Mint sold under the common name ‘Kentucky Colonel’ is regarded as the official variety for the mint julep. It is actually a cross-hybrid of traditional spearmint and apple mint, thought to originate in Kentucky. It is an appealing choice for a mint julep because it has the zest of spearmint to cut through bourbon as well as sweetness to rouse and complement the sweeter flavors of oak-aged bourbon. The earliest-recorded mention of a mint julep is in a book published in London in 1803, noted as a “traditional Virginia recipe” Henry Clay, a Kentucky senator, is credited with popularizing the cocktail by introducing it to the Round Robin Bar at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. where it became a popular cocktail. Each year at Churchill Downs approximately 120,000 mint juleps are sold on the first Saturday in May for the Derby alone. The traditional vessel for a mint julep is in a frosted silver tumbler, although now commonly served in glass.
Mint is available in countless hybrids, favorites being lemon-mint, lime-mint, chocolate-mint and variegated mint. These combinations also occur commonly in other members of the mint family like basil and thyme.
If your green thumb needs a little boost to its ego, or you are looking to start an herb garden, I encourage you to grow mint. Quick and easy, insensitive to location and delicious and fragrant, mint is one of the very most enjoyable herbs to grow. With a full spectrum of uses and a rich history, mint is one of my favorite additions to the garden.
Stephen Jones is an OSU Extension Master Gardener volunteer.