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Ahhh, mint. We love it, don't we? I'll wager it is the most recognizable herb in the country, if not the world. Everyone enjoys and uses mint, and there is a huge market for its essential oil, which is where we derive our pleasure from the plant. If it were not for its fresh and familiar fragrance, we probably would not pay it any mind. Each leaf has many thousands of microscopic glands that hold its precious oil, and pinching, bruising, cutting, heating or distilling the plant makes it give the oil up to us. The plant's oil has therapeutic value; it settles the stomach, decongests, and brings out sweat. Its slight stimulating effect creates no jolt to the nervous system -- wonderful for children and elders because it is so gentle.

How many of us have planted one little pot of mint only to be overrun with it a few years later? This generous and happy plant thrives just about anywhere. We all enjoy its refreshing flavor and fragrance in many summer recipes and products such as gum, toothpaste, tea and hair conditioner to name a few.

When I went to Purdue University in Indiana to study the science of essential oils, I was surprised to learn that corn is no longer the major crop in that area, it is mint. We toured mint farms that go on for as far as the eye can see and visited the huge distillery units where giant dump trucks full of mint were processed to extract its essential oil.

If mint's excess creates a problem, cramping the growth of other plants in your garden, a good solution is to plant it in a buried pot with the lip at ground level. Another solution is to use more of it. I don't think there is a time I go out to my garden during the growing season without pulling some mint sprigs to crush and keep in my pocket until the scent is gone. I love rubbing it between my palms with lavender, and it's a multisensory experience to simultaneously consume the ripe, red raspberries you are picking for jam.

Over a few years, some mint plants from nurseries hybridize, which causes the smell and taste to alter. If you taste your mint and find it harsher than you remember with a less crisp and clear scent, be ruthless, tear it out, and start over with new plants. You can replace it with some of the 25 mint species to choose from, including spearmint (Menthe spicata), peppermint (Menthe piperita), pennyroyal, apple and chocolate mint. Mint can be prettily variegated or curly. As always, I recommend becoming familiar with the botanical (Latin) names so you get the exact plant you want.

I am a big fan of the wild mints that grow in moist places. If you go camping, you cannot mistake the plant for anything else once you smell it. When wildcrafting, I often pick sprigs of plants I like or want to get to know. Years ago, I pressed some horse mint in my herb book and it retains the smell to this day. My favorite mint plant in my garden has grown from one sprig that was given to me by a curandera from her garden in a remote community in New Mexico. I am fascinated by the plant because it does not wander and after many years retains its crisp, true smell and taste.

You can preserve mint for future use in several ways. The first is to dry it. Cut the mint stem just above the ground right before it goes to flower and lay it flat in a basket or bundle a few sprigs together, hang them upside down and let dry until the leaves sound crispy when touched. Strip the dried leaves off the stems and store them in glass mason jars out of direct light. Keep them as whole as possible until you are ready to use them. Remember that the value is in the essential oil so if you make a tea from these leaves, only steep it for 3-5 minutes because heat causes the taste to dissipate quickly.

Another wonderful recipe for mint that keeps well is to infuse a simple syrup made from sugar and a bit of water. Add mint to apple jelly or make a mint sauce. Chop up mint and add fresh at the last minute to Asian noodle and pasta dishes. I chop it with garlic and other herbs for a marinade of lemon juice and olive oil. Fresh mint juleps are to die for! Once you make your own from scratch, you will never use that artificially green mystery syrup again.

Merry Harrison is a clinical herbalist, teacher, author and wildcrafter.
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Reprinted with permission: Catalyst Magazine

Other articles for the garden...

Grow Your Own Herbs  •   Growing herbs From Seed  •   Acquiring Medicinal/Culinary Herbs  •   The Garden You Didn't Plant
Unusual Culinary Herbs  •   Exotic Garden Herbs  •   Harvesting Your Herbs  •   Repelling Pests  •   Fall Gardening Tips  •   Harvest Season

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