Uses of mint throughout history
Mint, or Mentha is a genus of plants that are native just about everywhere in the world. They are all aromatic and have been used in medicine, cosmetics, religion, cooking and ornamentally by many cultures around the world. References in the Bible and other ancient writings places a high value on mint and it was thought that it was even considered valuable trade goods. The ancient Greeks loved mint and often rubbed the leaves on their bodies to mask perspiration odors, making it an early deodorant. In the 1300's mint was used as part of an early toothpaste recipe. And of course it made a great breath freshener. Mint was used medicinally for everything from stomach ailments to rashes, however it was believed that mint would prevent wounds from healing and should never be given for a fever. And for some strange reason it was believed that the medicinal value was reduced or eliminated if the plants were harvested using an iron knife.
Mint grows well in moist conditions with partial sun, however once established, it withstands drought and full sun quite well. Mine lives in full sun and the only moisture it gets is what falls from the sky, and I still have to use a weed whacker on it to keep it under control. Mint is aggressive and spreads quickly by underground runners and often takes over wherever it is planted. A small nursery transplant can expand into a mass up to four feet wide in a summer, so give it plenty of room. Many people sink a large container into the ground with several inches above the soil. This helps keep it contained. There are a number of different mints and all of them can be aggressive if left to themselves. Mint even grows well in a standing container and makes an excellent balcony or patio plant. It even seems happy indoors on a sunny windowsill. Few pests bother mint and deer refuse to eat it, so it is pretty much trouble-free.
Use mint in the kitchen
Mint has long been used in the kitchen. It is often included in Middle-Eastern foods and many rice and pesto dishes from around the world. Mint leaves are wonderful in various teas and drinks and here in Kentucky, the iconic mint julep is king. Mint is often served with lamb or chicken, however one of the easiest and tastiest things to be made from mint is mint jelly. It goes well with meats, over cream cheese or just on breakfast toast. If you have mint growing, you'll instantly have enough to make this treat. I used apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) and chocolate mint (Mentha x piperita 'Chocolate') for the jelly. I have both growing and it hasn't bloomed yet this spring. Harvesting mint for recipes is best done before the plants bloom. The essential oils are at their peak before the plants bloom and all recipes are best when harvested at this time. If your mint has bloomed, cut it back and harvest it once it re-grows.
Making mint jelly
To make the jelly, I cut about a gallon of mint stems and washed them well to remove any dirt or insects. After that I crushed and twisted them to release as much of the minty oils as possible. Then I poured four cups of boiling water over the crushed mint and let it stand overnight, This creates an infusion. The next morning, I strained the liquid from the leaves through a coffee filter and saved three cups of the liquid. The color was not very appetizing since I used chocolate mint with the dark stems. In retrospect, I should have just used the leaves instead of the whole stems. I decided to do another infusion with just the leaves and it turned out much nicer. The image below shows both infusions with the one where I used both the stems and leaves being the darker one. Most mint infusions are a light yellowish green and this was more brown because of the darker stems on the chocolate mint. It still smelled wonderful and if you have an infusion with little color, or too much color, you can add a couple drops of green food coloring to it if you wish. I put a couple drops in the lighter infusion before I made the jelly. Pour the liquid into a large stockpot because once this boils, it will expand quite a bit and you do not want it boiling over. Add a half teaspoon of lemon juice and a box of powdered pectin. Stir well to combine and bring to a full, rolling boil. Once it is boiling, add four cups of sugar and return the mixture to a full rolling boil again. Boil for one minute and your jelly is done. This recipe is very similar to the redbud jelly that I wrote about earlier this spring and you can use both of these as guides if you want to make jelly from other edible plants. A friend even commented that you could add a couple of green tea bags to the hot water and use that for the infusion if you like, which sounds very tasty too. Pour up the jelly into canning jars and process in a boiling water bath for five minutes and the jelly is done. This recipe made five half pints. You can also just keep it in a container in the refrigerator if you wish.
Buy mint plants on line this summer
Mint is such a useful plant and there are so many forms and types that there's sure to be one that suits your tastes and garden. We have a number of participating mail-order companies in PlantScout that offer quite a few varieties, so choose a couple and get started today. The summer is young and mint grows quickly. Along with the jelly, you can dry the leaves for tea, infuse them in an alcohol like vodka for homemade mint extract or add it to a salad. Mint makes a great addition to smoothies or yogurt and it pairs well with watermelon. There's lots you can do with mint and it grows so fast, there's always a ready supply. It makes a great plant for beginners and experts alike, so everyone should have some growing.