For years, I've enjoyed the very distinct flavors of peppermint and spearmint, as different as green "cool mint" and blue "fresh mint" types of toothpaste. I even have my favorite peppermint and spearmint cultivars. But until recently, I didn't realize just how many different varieties of hybrid mints were available. Once I started reading the descriptions and hearing people rave about adding this one to fruit salad or that one to iced tea, I had to try some of them for myself!
All hybrid mints share a basic "mintiness" in their flavor and aroma. It's the overtones that make them special–sweet, citrus, herbal, or spicy notes. Some are delicate; others are pungent. The strength of the flavors and the distinction between them does seem to vary with the season, the time of day, the weather, and probably other factors I haven't figured out. All I know is that sometimes I can catch that elusive whiff of pear or berry, and sometimes every mint in my pots seems to smell the same. So if you're disappointed with your first taste of a new plant, wait a few days or even a few weeks and try it again.
As with many herbs, it's important to keep pinching mints so they won't bloom and go to seed. (See "Get More From Your Herbs this Summer: Pinch, Pinch, Pinch!") The flavor of the leaves suffers once the plant has bloomed. Also, since most of these "fancy" mints are hybrids, they won't usually come true from seeds. If you let the plants set seed, seedlings that come up in your mint patch will probably taste different than the parent plant, and it's unlikely to be a difference that you'll like.
A great way to sample the flavors of mints is to brew them into hot or iced teas. Suzanne Talbert's article on "Home Grown Teas" gives clear instructions for making tea from mints and other herbs.
I've tried an assortment of mints over the past several years. Most have been grown in 12 inch pots on my patio. It's fun to invite people to sample various varieties and watch their faces as they discover that all mints really aren't all the same. PlantFiles lists 124 Mentha varieties, giving you an idea of mint's diveristy. These are some of the mints I've been growing lately:
'Crispa' has been described as a "doublemint," mostly spearmint with a touch of peppermint. I'd grow this one just for the wonderful texture of its bright green, curly-edged leaves.
'Chocolate Peppermint' has a wonderful, sweet peppermint flavor and attractive dark stems. If you close your eyes while eating it and use your imagination, the flavor will remind you of a peppermint patty.
'Ginger Mint' has a spicy, never bitter flavor that's wonderful in iced tea. I love the soft texture of its smaller, rounded green leaves.
'Hilary's Sweet Lemon'TM has a softer texture and a lemon-spearmint flavor. It was named for Senator Clinton during her tenure as First Lady.
'Jesse's Sweet Pear'TM is a mild, fruity-sweet peppermint with a slight pear aroma.
'Jim's Candy Lemon-Lime'TM is my favorite citrus-y mint, sweet with never a hint of harsh or bitter flavor.
'Julia's Sweet Citrus'TM is an assertive citrus mint with crisply crinkled leaves, as no-nonsense as the beloved chef for whom it was named.
'Kentucky Colonel' has a pure spearmint flavor with no harsh notes. It's a wonderful culinary variety, and its bright green leaves are distinctive.
'Marshmallow'TM seems like a mild peppermint much of the time, but if you catch it under the right conditions, it smells exactly like a freshly opened bag of marshmallows.
'Orange Mint' has both a citrus and a hint of bergamot or some pungent note. It's a hardy variety with crisp-textured leaves.
'Oregano-Thyme'TM might be the most unusual variety, since it hardly tastes like mint at all. You could probably add its pungent herbal flavor to fresh marinara sauce, although with actual oregano and thyme in my herb garden I haven't experimented with it.
'Pink Candy Pops'TM has very little flavor or aroma and is grown mostly for its fuzzy foliage and cute round, pink blooms.
'Wild Berries'TM is a sweet yet pungent peppermint with attractive crisp leaves and dark, burgundy-tinted stems.
While you might be able to find some of these mints at local nurseries, others are more readily available from specialty growers. Jim Westerfield hybrids (the trademarked names in the list above) can be found at Fragrant Fields in the US and at Richters Herbs in Canada. You might also be able to arrange trades with other DGers. Mints are tough, so they are great candidates for packing and sending by mail.
As much fun as I've had growing and sampling all the above varieties, I have to admit my two favorites have not changed. For most culinary purposes, from lamb-burgers to mojitos, I love the clean flavor of ‘Kentucky Colonel' Spearmint. For tea (both hot and iced) and just for nibbling, the one I pluck most often is sweet ‘Chocolate Peppermint'. Still, it's always nice to have options!
Go beyond peppermint! Expand your garden and your culinary horizons by trying some of the different cultivars and hybrid varieties now available.
Photos by Jill M Nicolaus