Plant Common Name
Tasty chewing gum, refreshing tea and toothpaste all are made from or flavored with mints. There are about 30 species in the genus Mentha which are distributed across the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere with a few odd species found in Africa and Australia. Most are herbaceous annuals or perennials that vary in habit, scent, floral display and size.
Lots of Mentha spread aggressively by creeping aboveground stems (stolons) or belowground stems (rhizomes). Like most mints, the stems are square and lined with aromatic leaves that line the leaves in pairs opposite to one another. The leaves are generally simple, oblong or lance-shaped and have toothed edges. They are sometimes fuzzy or have deeply quilted veins. Leaf color can be dark to medium green and gray-green, blue-green, purplish or yellow. Erect spikes of tiny, four-lobed, tubular flowers bloom at different times of the year, depending on the species. They are arranged in characteristic whorls around erect spikes. Bees, butterflies and other insects pollinate the blooms. The fruits are small, dry, round nutlets.
There are several commonly cultivated mint species and hundreds of cultivars available to gardeners. Spearmint (Mentha spicata) is the quintessential mint. It is a hardy, spreading perennial that originates from Europe and is grown for its wonderfully flavorful and fragrant leaves. It spreads readily and can be aggressive. Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is a naturally occurring hybrid between Mentha spicata and Mentha aquatica that’s also European in origin. It’s leaves have a spicy, minty smell and taste but it’s just as aggressive as spearment. Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) has long been known as fleabane because its natural oils truly repel fleas. It is a species native to the Old World from Europe to Iran where it grows in a wide range of conditions.
Culture and hardiness vary by species, however most mints are very easy to grow. Some thrive in moist soils while others need dry and well-drained. Full to partial sun is preferred for most. Mints tend to adapt to just about any condition as long as water is available. Due to their aggressive nature, they are best planted in areas where their spread can be controlled. Containers, troughs or isolated garden spaces are best.