Mint and its uses

Mint is an important culinary and medicinal herb plant. It can be used in cooking, to make teas and refreshing drinks, and as a fragrance.

Mints (Mentha) are aromatic perennials.
The name mint comes from the Latin word mentha, which is derived from the Greek word minthe (from the name of a water-nymph in Greek mythology).

Most mints are native to Europe and Asia.

Ginger mint plant, Mentha × gracilis 'Variegata'
Ginger mint plant, Mentha × gracilis ‘Variegata’

How to use mint

Mint has many uses, and each variety has its own flavour and uses.

Mint has a soothing effect on the digestive system. So having a mint tea with meals can help some people with digestive problems.

Mint can be used in cooking.

Add fresh mint to cocktails and other drinks.

Which is the best mint for culinary use?

The most useful varieties for culinary uses are:

Applemint

Spearmint

See the descriptions and variety details below.

Apple mint plant with dew on the leaves
Apple mint plant with dew on the leaves

Which mint makes the best tea?

Peppermint is most commonly used to make mint tea. It has a strong, sweet, refreshing flavour.

Apple Mint and spearmint are also good for making tea, and are especially good if you prefer a milder taste.

Moroccan mint tea is a combination of gunpowder tea (green tea) and spearmint.

Try using a mix of different mint types in a tea.
If I don’t have enough peppermint for a tea, I will often add some apple mint and spearmint to the mix.

I have also tried using wild water mint for tea (it can often be found growing wild by steams and ponds) and ginger mint. Both of these can have a sharp or more peppery flavour, but are usually OK when young.

Peppermint plant
Peppermint plant – the best for mint tea

Mint tea

You can make a tea from most types of mint, but peppermint is the one that most people prefer for tea making.

Peppermint tea

You may have had peppermint tea, made from dried peppermint, but if you haven’t tried fresh peppermint tea made from fresh peppermint leaves, you really should.

I personally have never really liked tea made from dried peppermint. But fresh peppermint tea is quite different. Be prepared for a taste explosion!

A little bit of sweetening – just half a teaspoon of honey or sugar – will really enhance the flavour and make it absolutely delicious.

Making peppermint tea from fresh mint

Pick some mint stems, usually a length of about 3 – 6 inches long will work well.

Only pick the young growing shoots and not any tough woody stems.

Make an individual cup of mint tea

Boil enough water to fill a cup or mug (a tall mug will work best).

Pick 4 or 5 peppermint stems of about 3 – 4 inches long.
Gently rinse them in a bowl of water and place in the cup or mug.

Pour over the boiled water, and leave for at least 5 minutes.

Sweeten slightly.

Enjoy.

Make a pot of mint tea

Method: as above, but the amount of mint required will vary depending on the size of the teapot and the amount of tea you want to make.

To make 2 – 3 cups of mint tea, use around 8 – 12 mint stems of around 3 – 6 inches long.

Cover with boiled water and stand for 5 – 10 minutes.

Try using a mixture of other mint varieties with the peppermint.
Spearmint and apple mint both work well.

Alternatives and ideas

You can drink mint tea hot or cold.

Mix with other edible herbs such as fennel for a more interesting tea.

Cooking with mint

Minted potatoes
Chopped mint leaves – apple mint or spearmint – are added to the cooked potatoes. Best with a little butter.

Omeletes and scrambled egg
Chopped fresh herbs, including mint, work really well in omelettes and other egg dishes.

Tzatziki
A Greek dip made with yogurt, cucumber, mint, garlic and lemon juice.

Mint sauce
An acidic sauce used with lamb, made from mint, vinegar and sugar.
Traditionally made with spearmint, which is also known as lamb mint in the UK.

Desserts
Mint works well in desserts such as Eton mess, ice cream or yogurt, and works especially well with strawberries.

Apple mint or spearmint will work well for most culinary uses.

Mint varieties

The two varieties of mint I wouldn’t want to be without are peppermint and apple mint.

Each mint variety has a different smell, but all have a distinctive mint fragrance when the leaves or stems are damaged.

Mints can have sweet aromatic flavour but this can develop into a sharper and more peppery flavour as the leaves and stems age, or if they have a lot of strong sun.

Apple mint

Apple mint with dew on the leaves

Other names: round-leaved mint, woolly mint
Latin: Mentha suaveolens

Apple mint is probably the best variety for culinary uses, and is fantastic with minted potatoes or peas, or in tzatziki.

It is a vigorous plant. It has rounded, soft and hairy, bright green leaves, which are larger than the leaves of most other mints.

Peppermint

Peppermint plant

Latin: Mentha x piperita

Peppermint is a very strong mint which has a sweet strong flavour, and it is ideal for making tea and sweets. It is too strong for most culinary uses.

It has smooth oval dark green leaves, sometimes with dark red/purple colouring on stems and leaves.

It is grown commercially for peppermint oil, and it contains high levels of menthol along with other chemical compounds.

Peppermint is a hybrid, a cross between watermint and spearmint.
It is native to Europe and the Middle East.

Spearmint

Spearmint plant

Other names: garden mint, common mint, lamb mint
Latin: Mentha spicata

Spearmint is a good mint for cooking and other culinary uses.

It has bright green, elongated toothed leaves which have a slightly crinkly look.

Native to Europe.

Related Varieties
Mentha spicata var. crispa ‘Moroccan’ (Moroccan mint)
Mentha spicata ‘Tashkent’ (spearmint ‘Tashkent’)

Water mint

Latin: Mentha aquatica

Wild mint which grows in or near water, such as streams, small ponds and damp boggy areas. It can be used for teas and other uses.

It has smooth, broad, dark green leaves sometimes with some purple colouring on stems and leaf edges. It has a strong mint smell, similar to peppermint but not usually as sweet.

It is native to much of Europe, northwest Africa and southwest Asia.

Ginger mint

Ginger mint plant

Latin: Mentha x gracilis

A pretty plant with gold/green variegated leaves. It often has a more sharp taste than other mints. It is probably best grown as an ornamental plant rather than for culinary use. It has pretty lilac flowers.

Its appearance varies depending on age and growing conditions. Typically a mix of green and yellow, with golden brown colouring appearing in hot dry conditions.

It is grown commercially for its essential oil.

Chocolate mint

Latin: Mentha x piperita ‘Chocolate

Peppermint hybrid with a chocolate scent.

Which other plants are part of the mint family?

The plants which we call mint are part of the Lamiaceae or Labiatae family of flowering plants. These are commonly known as the mint or deadnettle or sage family.

Many of the plants are aromatic in all parts and include many culinary or medicinal herbs:

  • Basil
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Marjoram
  • Oregano
  • Thyme
  • Lemon Balm
  • Lavender
  • Mint (mentha)

Growing mint as a garden plant

Mint is very easy to grow. However there are a few important things to remember.

Grow in pots

It is best to grow mint plants in a large pot, rather than plant into the garden – mints can be rampant spreaders.

Mints spread by creeping rhizomes, and can get out of control very quickly.

Don’t plant different mints in the same pot

Some mints (like spearmint) are real thugs and will out-compete other more delicate mints.

Mint plants also seem to lose their unique flavours and fragrance if they are grown too close to different mint varieties.

Water mint plants well

Give mint plants plenty of water, especially in warm weather.

They are thirsty, hungry plants.

Bright – but cool – site

Mints like good light but will usually prefer a cooler site which gives some protection from excessive heat and strong midday sun.

They will not be happy on a hot, south-facing patio. (Save that location for dry sun lovers like thyme and rosemary.)

Cut regularly

Regularly cut the stems and use for tea or cooking (or to make new plants – see propagating mint, below). As with most herb plants, this will promote fresh growth – which tastes better – and delay it from flowering.

Annual care

The plants die back in the winter, and will usually start to grow new leaves in March/April.

Cut back any old dead stems. Rejuvenate old plants by pulling the plant apart, trimming off excess root and runners, then replanting the best plant sections into new compost. Water well and within a few days the plant should be growing again, and will be much stronger and healthier.

Flowering

Mints produce spikes of mauve, pink or white flowers in late summer. Ginger Mint is one of the prettiest flowers.

Regular stem cutting will delay flowering. If your mint flowers, but you want to make it productive again, cut it back hard and give it some food. It should start to grow again in a few weeks.

Ginger mint plant with flowers
Ginger mint plant with mauve flowers

Pests and problems

Aphids
Aphids are a particular problem at the start of the growing season in spring. Aphids love the young juicy growing shoots as the new growth begins to appear. Weak or stressed plants are usually worst affected.

  • Snip off the affected stems (this will also encourage the plant to bush out with new growth).
  • Keep the plant well watered, and keep it out of strong hot sun.
  • If you haven’t re-potted the plant since last year, divide up the plant and re-pot the best sections into fresh compost in a large pot (a sprinkle of slow release plant food and some water retaining gel will be beneficial).

Caterpillars
After the aphids go away – the caterpillars arrive.
Look out for leaves with holes or leaves which are curled up or stuck together (look between the stuck leaves and you may find a tiny caterpillar hiding there).

  • Remove affected leaves.
  • Check the plants every day or two so that you can hopefully remove caterpillars before they cause too much damage.

Propagation – creating new plants

Divide your plants

If you have a large mint plant you can often divide the plant into two or more sections. Plant each section into a new pot with fresh compost, water, and wait for a few days. It will soon start growing again.

Stem cuttings

Mint is a very easy plant to propagate with cuttings, and mint cuttings can be easily rooted in a small glass, vase or jar filled with water.

In fact I usually keep a few stems in a vase in the kitchen, so that it is ready to use when I want it. I often find that these stems have rooted before the leaves have been used up.

Mint - rooted stem cuttings - Apple Mint and Peppermint
Mint – rooted stem cuttings – apple mint and peppermint

Using secateurs or a sharp knife, cut a healthy stem (non-flowering). This should be about 4 or 5 inches (10 – 12cm) long. Remove the lower leaves (you can use these for tea or in cooking), leaving just the top pair of full size leaves and the growing tip.
Place the stems in the water.
The ends of the stems do have a tendency to curl up, so I prevent the stems from curling too far by using a very narrow glass vessel.

Place on (or near) a cool windowsill (not in full sun) and wait. In a few days you should see small roots start to appear.

Mint - rooted stem cuttings - Apple Mint
Mint – rooted stem cuttings – apple mint

When they are growing well, pot them up into pots of compost and water them well.

Pinch out the growing tips (use these for cooking or tea).
This will encourage the plants to create side stems rather than one tall stem.

You can also use the traditional method of placing a cutting into a pot of compost. Keep it moist and out of the sun, and in a few days you will hopefully have growing plants.