Catnip in bloom. One of the best things about this plant family is that bees seem to love them ALL.

This is a continuation in the series on garden plant families. The first installment, on the Brassicas – aka mustards – aka crucifers, can be found here.

Today we’re here to talk about the mints (Lamiaceae – which includes MANY of our herbs). Reminder: as a companion to this series, I highly recommend the brilliant book Botany in a Day. The Patterns Method of Plant Identification by Thomas J. Elpel.

The mints are especially on my mind of late as we’re harvesting herbs for many of my herb/spice mixes, pesto and simple syrups. SO many of our herbs are in this often aromatic family, including rosemary, marjoram, oregano, the many culinary mints, thyme, culinary sage (salvia – not sagebrush), savory (winter and summer), pineapple sage and the many basils.

Many of our more medicinal and ornamental herbs are also in this family, including lavender, lemon balm, horehound, holy basil (aka tulsi), coleus, hyssop, pennyroyal, bee balm, clary sage, catnip, salvia, lambs ears and purple dead nettle (the Latin Lamium actually means dead nettle).

Purple Dead Nettle, a common spring “weed” locally. It’s edible.

The mint family is characterized by opposite leaves (leaves are found directly across from each other on the stem) and a distinctive square stem (its sometimes easier to feel this distinct four-sided stem than it is to see it, depending on how small the stem is.) Flowers are often but not always two united petal lobes up, three down and the blossoms are often small and bunched together. The alternative name for this plant family is Labiatae, which means “lipped”. The lower “lip” of the flower often sticks out beyond the upper on the flower, something you get an eye for after a while.

Culinary sage in bloom (with bee butt). Note the grouped flowers, and the lower “lip” sticking out.

Somewhat similar plant families include loosestrife, verbena and stinging nettle. There has been some genetic work on the verbena family where some plants originally classified as mints are now considered verbenas and vice versa.

Another characteristic many in this plant family share is their ability to spread, either through above ground or below ground “runners” or by seed. My yard is a botanical wonderland of the mint family gone wild, including oregano (reseed), lemon balm (reseed), catnip (reseed), lambs ears (reseed – but politely) and dead nettle that shows itself every spring and then politely disappears as the heat comes on. Anyone who has ever mistakenly planted mint in the corner of an herb garden, only to have it take over, knows to keep culinary mint in a pot or banish it to a far corner where it can do its thing without competing with other things you might like to grow. I have spearmint planted near a slightly leaky hose bib, and we just mow it when it spreads too far.

A note on spearmint (Mentha spicata) vs peppermint (Mentha piperita). Generally, peppermint is a darker green, sometimes with an almost purple stem, and a much sharper more menthol flavor. Culinary mints (genus Mentha) will readily hybridize naturally, and so when you find a “wild” mint along a stream bank, it very well may be a naturalized hybrid that originated in someone’s yard. Even taxonomists throw up their hands for this genus, which is said to number from 18 to 24 species, and includes many many hybrids.

I personally like peppermint for tea (including the chocolate mint and the orange mint – which to me just taste like…peppermint), and spearmint for most anything else. I once substituted spearmint for peppermint essential oil in a soap recipe, and was astounded at how much the change affected the overall scent blend. I had assumed they were fairly similar. So as a comparison, I looked up all of the major chemical constituents of both. Turns out they share very little in common.

Menthyl Acetate(Z)-Dihydrocarvone
Bold = makes up the majority of the oil

Some plants in the mint family are perennial, and given the right conditions, may still be thriving long after you’re gone. Some are short lived perennials (anise hyssop is a favorite) that don’t live long, but are easy to start from seed. And some are tender perennials or annuals that only thrive during hot weather. Plants like basil and marjoram, which will be killed instantly as soon as we get down into the low 30’s, even if it doesn’t freeze.

Sweet basil, which seems to go to flower in a nanosecond. If you don’t use it all, the bees will thank you.

Interestingly, I’ve found basil to be a plant that once it germinates, is almost bomb proof to being transplanted. I’ve literally pulled it out of soft soil so that all the roots were exposed, stuffed it into a new pot in a not so gentle way, and found it to seemingly have grown overnight after transplanting, suffering no ill effects. This property has always endeared basil to me, even though its not in my personal top 5 for “must have” herbs in my own cooking. Tulsi, or holy basil is the same way. VERY easy to grow from seed.

Butters loves his catnip. Turns out its relaxing for humans as well as cats, and is in my Chillax tea blend.

So as we hit August, and we begin to harvest ALL THE THINGS, we’ll keep harvesting mint family herbs for use and sale all year long.

© 2020 Miles Away Farm, where we’re super excited to now be offering fresh pesto and basil simple syrup to get you through your 2020 pandemic summer!