Mint: It's Easy to Grow and Great to Have on Hand

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Story at-a-glance -

  • A hardy perennial plant, mint is easy for beginning gardeners. As it is very aggressive and invasive, it grows best in container gardens in full sun or partial shade
  • The powerfully fragrant plant has a rich history; it was used in medieval times to freshen room air and in perfumes, and used to symbolize hospitality, offered as a sign of welcome and friendship to guests
  • Mint is available in a number of different varieties, the most common and popular are peppermint, spearmint, chocolate mint, lemon balm and catmint, otherwise known as catnip
  • Packed with antioxidants, mint leaves and essential oil add significant health benefits including reducing seasonal allergic reactions and relieving nausea and gastric discomfort, but should never be used if you have GERD, as it may worsen symptoms

By Dr. Mercola

Mint is a popular herb with a rich history and folklore. The plant is hardy, available nearly year-round and easily grown as demonstrated in this video. From the genus Mentha with 25 species of fragrant herbs, mint is capable of arousing strong feelings in different cultures. For instance, the French don’t often use mint, while the English and Middle Eastern cultures enjoy it in many dishes.

The oil is often added to toothpaste, candy and gums. While it complements different foods and works well with other herbs, many are unaware of how to incorporate it into their cooking. There are over two dozen distinct species, some of which are easier to add to your meals than spearmint or peppermint.

The telltale aroma and taste of mint comes from the menthol oil found in resinous dots on the leaves and stems of the plant.1 Mint leaves are packed with antioxidants and easily grown in an enclosed garden, containers or even indoors, providing you with fresh, organically grown leaves whenever you need them.

Fun Facts About Mint

The name originates from a Greek mythology character. Hades, the Greek god of the underworld, fell in love with the river nymph Minthe. When his wife, Persephone, found out she cast a spell to turn Minthe into a plant so she would be crushed when people trod on her. Unable to change the spell, Hades gave Minthe a strong aroma so he could be near her when people walked over her.2

Mint has been an important herb since medieval times. It was often strewn about the home to freshen the air or used in bath water.3 The ancient Romans and Greeks used it in perfumes and fruit compote, while the ancient Hebrews scattered it over their synagogue floors.

Medieval monks used the herb for its culinary and medicinal properties and other cultures believed mint symbolized hospitality, offering it as a sign of welcome and friendship to guests.4

The plant is believed to originate from the Mediterranean region and has been found in Egyptian tombs dating as far back as 1000 B.C. Peppermint was introduced to the U.S. by English settlers. The plant was first cultivated in Massachusetts in the early 1800s, before larger scale production began in New York state.5

Due to favorable growing conditions in the northwest and fungal diseases found on the east coast, peppermint cultivation moved to the northwestern states in the early 1900s. Today, the U.S. produces 70 percent of the world's peppermint and spearmint.6

As of 2017 Washington farmers produced more spearmint than any other state in the U.S., and came in third in production of peppermint oil, right behind Oregon and Idaho.7 Together, Washington accounts for nearly 3.5 million pounds of mint oil annually, valued at nearly $80 million.8,9

Choose Your Flavor

Most types of mint require the same or similar care. And, as true mint varieties are known to cross pollinate, it’s wise to plant different mint types away from each other. Before choosing the type of mint you like in your garden, be sure it's well suited for your growing region and for your intended use.

Some of the most common varieties include peppermint, spearmint, lemon balm and catnip, also known as catmint. The list of mint varieties is much longer and not all varieties are good for culinary purposes. Other varieties found in gardens include:10

Apple mint (Woolly mint)

Basil mint

Calamint

Chewing Gum mint

Corn or Field mint

Chocolate mint

Ginger mint

Grapefruit mint

Horsemint Red

Lavender mint

Licorice mint

Orange mint

Pennyroyal

Pineapple mint

Raripila mint

Watermint

Prepare Your Soil for a Healthy Garden

Mint can be started from seed, from cuttings or from a runner. A runner is a long stem growing away from the main plant, which often extends new roots into the soil. These rooted stems can be used if you carefully dig them up.11

Since the mint plant is quite invasive, it's best to plant them in an enclosed garden or a container to limit the area of growth. Some varieties are very difficult to start from a seed, so consider using a transplant or cutting. Prepare your soil as demonstrated in the video using 25 percent vermicompost, 25 percent coco peat, 25 percent fine sand and 25 percent garden soil.

Mix this together well before adding it to your container or your enclosed garden area. Ideally, use a clay pot with a drainage hole for adequate soil drainage. Prior to adding the soil, cover the hole with a small stone to assist with drainage. Cuttings or transplanted plants can now be added to the pot.

Growing Mint at Home

If you're using a cutting from a healthy plant, use scissors to cut the plant cleanly 4 to 5 inches long and just below a node. The node is the point on the stem where the leaves emerge on both sides. Although the video advises you take 15 to 20 cuttings, your mint plant will grow quickly, so you may quickly cover a 2-foot area with just two or three cuttings and prevent overcrowding.12

Prior to planting your cuttings, remove the leaves from the bottom of the stem. Plant them in the soil 1 to one-half inch deep. You can make a hole with a pencil or with your finger, gently placing the end of the cutting into the soil and tamping the soil gently down. Once all the cuttings have been planted, gently water the soil until it's damp but not thoroughly wet.

For the first eight to 12 days, the plants will appreciate a bright location but not direct sunlight. It's best to water them daily in the morning hours until the soil is moist but not wet. You will see new growth from your cuttings within the first two weeks.

Another option is to start your cuttings in spring water indoors. Place the plants in a well-lit location and make sure the water does not reach the remaining leaves on the stem. Usually, after just one week, your plant should show small white roots. One week later, the cutting will be ready to be planted in soil.

Once the plants are well-rooted they will appreciate being in an area with plenty of sunlight. Keep new plants well-watered throughout the first year. Consider mulching around your plants as it helps to keep the soil from drying out, prevents the mint from spreading too far out of control and helps to insulate the plants in the winter months so they better withstand freezing temperatures.

Controlling Pests in Your Mint Garden

Another reason mint is an exceptional plant for the beginning gardener is it's rapidly growing and nearly indestructible. Occasionally, pests may decide they like the plant as much as you do. The most common are aphids, thrips, slugs and snails. However, even bunny rabbits may like to nibble on your mint plants.

Some signs your plants may be infested are speckled leaves with yellow spots or large holes in the foliage. Clusters of small holes mean flea beetles, and small winged or wingless insects on the leaves may mean aphids.

Spider mites and aphids can be controlled by creating an unfavorable environment. For small populations, the plant can be soaked with plain water daily until spider mites are gone. For a more serious infestation, garlic water or hydrogen peroxide treatment may be beneficial.13

Aphids, little green bugs, can be controlled by spraying the leaves with a garden hose or combination of liquid soap and water. If you have a large colony, cut the plants back severely and spray the remainder with soap and water. Soapy water should be reapplied every two to three days for two weeks to discourage the insects.14

Placing diatomaceous earth around the plants will also discourage pests. Although mint is hardy, prevention is the best medicine to reducing any population of pests and preventing the development of fungal infections. Provide good air circulation and well-drained soil, knock off insects using spray from a garden hose and be sure to check the underside of leaves where pests can hide.15

Harvesting and Storing Mint

Harvesting and pruning serves the same purpose to keep your bed of mint healthy. Your goals are to keep the plant from flowering and going to seed, to prevent the stems from becoming too woody, and to provide good air circulation throughout the plants. Use a sharp pair of scissors to cut the stems, as they are strong and pulling may rip out an entire plant.

When the plants are allowed to flower it reduces the quality and potency of the flavor of the leaves. Anytime you need a couple of sprigs, never be afraid to harvest. However, if you think you'll need a large quantity, consider waiting until pruning time. Plants can be pruned when they reach 8 to 12 inches in height.16

Toward the fall and before the first frost it's important to trim the plant to ground level to help prevent insects and diseases that might otherwise overwinter in the plants. You may use the leaves you prune at this time. When harvesting your mint, it's best to pick early in the morning as the leaves tend to be more potent. In fact, the more you pick mint, the faster it tends to grow.

There are several ways to store your fresh herbs if you aren’t going to use them in the first day or two. You can freeze them by washing them first and patting them dry.17 Spread them on a single layer on a pan and place the pan in the freezer. Once they've frozen, place them in labeled containers, being sure all the air is out of any bags before sealing them.

In many cases, you don't need to thaw the herbs before use. Most major brands of canning jars are rated for use in the freezer as well. Be sure the manufacturer of your jars rates them for freezer use.

These herbs can also be air-dried by tying a bunch together with a rubber band and hanging them upside down for several days in a dark dry room. Once the stems and leaves are completely dry, pull off the leaves and store them in an airtight container.18

Mint Benefits Your Health and Home

The high antioxidant content in mint makes it beneficial to your health. The herb contains vitamins A, B2 and C and minerals like zinc, calcium, copper and magnesium.19 The menthol on the leaves of the plant has analgesic and local anesthetic properties.20

Consider freshening your meals and salads with a few mint leaves. Incorporate the leaves into fresh fruit salad with chopped apples, pear, lemon or lime juice, jalapeno and honey.21 Add fresh mint to steamed rice or pair with berries or pineapple for a fresh mint smoothie.22

There are a few contraindications to using mint. For example, it can exacerbate gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and those who have gallstones should also be cautious not to consume mint.23 Peppermint oil, when taken in large doses, can be toxic.

Don't apply mint oil to the face of an infant or small child as it may cause spasms, inhibiting breathing. If you are on prescription medications, speak to your health care provider or pharmacist to determine if the drugs interact with mint or mint oil.24 Mint can also be used to:

Relieve allergy symptoms — Rosmarinic acid, an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent in mint, has been studied for its potential in helping to relieve seasonal allergy and asthma symptoms.25 This antioxidant works by inhibiting COX-1 and COX-2 enzymes.

According to a study published in Biofactors journal, taking 50 milligrams of rosmarinic acid daily helped reduce the levels of inflammatory molecules and eosinophils or allergy-related white blood cells, leading to significantly decreased symptoms.26

Ease digestive problems — Mint has been used for thousands of years as a remedy for indigestion, as it helps increase bile secretion and encourages bile flow. Peppermint in particular has been found to relieve pain and discomfort caused by gas and bloating. It may also help alleviate gastric ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome.27

Relieve nausea and headache — The refreshing scent of mint provides quick relief for nausea and has been added to soothing balms intended for nausea. Simply crushing (and inhaling) fresh mint leaves may provide the same effect. Mint may also soothe inflammation and temperature rise associated with headaches and migraines.28

Help clear congestion — Mint cools and soothes the throat, nose and other parts of the respiratory system and helps alleviate congestion brought on by coughs and colds.

Promote relief from pain and fatigue — If you are feeling depressed, anxious, sluggish or exhausted, mint may be useful. It was also found to help increase pain threshold in humans.

Help relieve discomfort for first-time mothers who are breastfeeding — The first several days nursing a newborn may increase the risk of sore or cracked nipples. Peppermint water may help prevent nipple pain in first-time mothers who are breastfeeding.29

Calm skin irritations — When applied topically, mint lotion may help soothe irritation associated with insect bites.30

Foot scrub — Mix 1 cup of Himalayan salt, one-third cup of olive oil and six drops of peppermint essential oil, and scrub all over your feet. The salt exfoliates your skin while the menthol soothes sore muscles.31

Room freshener and floor cleaner — Add a few drops of mint essential oil to your homemade cleaner. You can also dilute three to five drops of mint essential oil in a cup of white vinegar, and add it to a gallon of water. This solution works for wood, concrete or tile floors.

Mint tea — Mix a batch of peppermint tea in five minutes, brewing it from dried leaves from your garden. It helps relieve stress, promotes sleep, as an appetite suppressant and helps clear hormonal skin changes, like acne.32

Flea and tick repellent — Mix two parts fresh spearmint, one part fresh thyme and one part fresh wormwood, and tuck it inside a small pillow. Place the pillow near your pet's favorite resting place or in his bed.33