Ah, mint! Mint is one of the plant families that divide gardeners into beginners, intermediates and advanced classifications. Beginners are excited to grow the plants that are labeled “easy-to-grow” at the nursery and buy quantities of them for their first herb garden, or accept free plants from friends. We always tell people to beware of someone bearing free plants—there is some reason that they are trying to get rid of them.
Intermediates have realized just exactly what is meant by “easy-to-grow” or “free” and have cleared every trace of mint from their gardens, and if possible, from their lives. They use every trick available to them from pulling the plants to mowing the plants to using herbicides (sometimes undiluted) to rototilling the mint bed (don’t they know that rototilling in a mint bed is the same thing as thinning, transplanting and encouraging mint roots?).
The advanced gardener knows that mint is indispensable in an herb garden and has found ways to control its desire to take over the world, from planting it in pots or hanging baskets to cutting the bottom out of a large coffee can and setting the whole can into the ground, leaving only an inch or two above the ground, with the mint plant securely planted in the center of the can.
The more advanced and serious gardeners also learn that there are plants that smell or taste like mint, but do not have mint’s naughty growth habits and are therefore welcome additions to the garden or windowsill. It is important to realize that not all true mints (Mentha) smell and taste like the familiar peppermint or spearmint. Some of them, like pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium), smell more of caraway and are commonly used as insect or mouse repellants. Sometimes they smell fruity like banana mint (Mentha arvensis ‘Banana’) or sweet and flowery like heliotrope (Mentha arvensis subsp. haplocalyx). And in Michigan some mints are grown as annuals since they are not hardy this far north.
We are going to talk about just some of the plants that are mint “wannabes.” One of our favorites is costmary (Tanacetum balsamita). This is a large plant that can get four feet tall, and is hardy. The leaves used to be pressed in bibles where they were supposed to repel insects, and the leaves were used as fragrant fans during long church services, perhaps to help keep ladies in tight corsets from fainting. It also makes a fine bookmark for any book. The yellow clusters of flowers dry to a fragrant, pretty gold and are used in wreaths and other craft projects.
Another favorite is mountain mint (Pycnanthemum pilosum). This is used as a mint substitute in the kitchen where the leaves and flowers are used to flavor soups and other dishes, and to make a minty tea. The flowers are dried for a number of crafts and for their fragrance in potpourri. It is hardy in Michigan.
Did you know that there is a mint marigold (Tagetes minuta) that is used mainly as an insect repellant? It grows tall, up to four feet or more, is an annual, has lacy foliage, and rarely flowers in Michigan. It is also known as Mexican marigold or weedkiller plant. It destroys noxious weeds like bindweed and ground ivy, and is supposed to be good at mosquito control. It is used in the kitchen to flavor meats and vegetables.
There are nice houseplants called St. John’s mint (Micromeria brownei) and Jamaican peppermint (Satureja viminea). St. John’s mint is used in Jamaica, where it grows naturally, to flavor herb tea. Jamaican peppermint (sometimes listed as Micromeria viminea) is used for upset tummies in Costa Rica and to flavor meat in Trinidad. It grows like a small shrub, to three feet tall. Neither of these plants is hardy in Michigan, thus they are grown indoors.
One that has been hardy in our gardens is the mint shrub (Elsholtzia stauntonii). It blooms with lavender-colored flower spikes in late summer until frost, and frequently entertains butterflies. It has an anise-mint fragrance and has woody canes that winter over. The flowers dry for crafts and potpourri, and the leaves are used for flavoring, more commonly in the Far East.
Short-lived perennials called anise mint or anise hyssop (Agastache foeniculum) and its close relative called Korean mint (Agastache rugosa) self-sow in our gardens and come up in other places, thanks in some part, probably, to the goldfinches that like the seeds and decorate the gardens in autumn. As you can tell by the Latin names, these are neither anise nor hyssop, although they both have a strong anise-mint fragrance and flavor. The flowers are edible and the leaves are used to flavor herb tea, meat dishes and salads.
There is also a mint thyme (Thymus ‘Mint’). It has a creeping habit with tight foliage and a mild mint fragrance, and would be nice planted among paving stones in a walk. It is perennial in Michigan.
And there is a eucalyptus tree called Australian peppermint (Eucalyptus dives) that smells like a good peppermint. It is used in liquid soaps and disinfectants, and in vaporizers for colds. It is a 50- to 70-foot tree, although it can be grown for a while in a pot in Michigan. It is not hardy.
And we haven’t even started on the scented geraniums. The most common of the peppermint geraniums is Pelargonium tomentosum, which has velvety leaves and a sprawling growth habit that does especially well in hanging baskets. These leaves are used as a poultice for bruises, and as a flavoring in teas, desserts, jellies and chocolate cakes. These plants are not frost hardy, but they make nice houseplants in the winter. There is an upright version called pungent peppermint (Pelargonium tomentosum ‘Pungent Peppermint’) that has the same fragrance and is a bit tidier on the windowsill. There are others too, including ‘Peppermint Lace’ with deeply cut leaves, and ‘Peppermint Spice’ with very deeply cut leaves and a spicy peppermint fragrance. One of our favorites, ‘Variegated Mint Rose’ (Pelargonium x asperum ‘Variegatum’), combines the fragrances of mint and rose in a very pretty plant. Even ‘Chocolate Mint’ (Pelargonium quercifolium ‘Chocolate Mint’) has a good mint fragrance and some people say smells a bit like chocolate although the old herb books tell us that the chocolate in the name refers to the chocolate-colored marks on the leaves.
Each of these fake mints has its own uses and craft projects. Most of them can be substituted for mint in your projects. The fragrance may vary a bit, but probably no one but you will be the wiser. And if someone notices, they will just think of you as an expert!