Calling mints "mysterious" is a bit of an alliterative exaggeration. There isn't much mysterious about mints, unless it's the fact that such plain green leaves can provide such marvelous scents--scents that vary from pepperminty to perfume-y.
It's not surprising that I like mints. I like fragrant plants and I like plants that are easy to grow. Mints are both. Mints are also easy to propagate, so one plant can become several via cuttings and the extras can be passed along to friends. Even if you don't take cuttings, a flourishing mint will spread and become more plants. In fact, the usual warning that comes with mint is "Plant it in a container or it will take over your garden."
That's true enough. I planted mint, both spearmint and peppermint, in a shady area by the deck where other plants didn't want to grow. While the mint beds have had their ups and downs, sometimes flourishing and sometimes not, it is certainly true that whenever they are doing well, I have to keep pulling mint out of the adjacent "lawn". Those stems move sneakily just beneath the surface, it seems, and suddenly peppermint pops up a foot away from its designated bed.
The front of the house used to be an area of gardening desperation--gravelly soil on top of solid clay, shade, and lots of very hungry deer. I planted ferns and a groundcover (Lamium, which is also in the mint family though not a Mentha) and bergamot mint (a.k.a orange mint, not monarda/beebalm). As neighboring trees were taken down, providing a bit more light to our front yard, the mints flourished. (Apparently deer don't care for bergamot-flavored leaves.) In fact, they are flourishing so much that the groundcover needs to be chopped back at least a couple of times a season, and the bergamot mint is trying to spread into the "lawn".
|Bergamot (orange) mint|
I have four different mints now--peppermint, spearmint, apple mint and bergamot mint. Technically I think I bought two varieties of peppermint (chocolate mint smells like plain peppermint to me) and two varieties of spearmint that may have differed in leaf size (one was "Kentucky Colonel" and the other might just have been generic spearmint), but I can't distinguish them any more. If I could only have two kinds of mint, I would choose peppermint and spearmint. What delicious smells!
The bergamot mint has more rounded leaves than either the peppermint or spearmint. It smells... like bergamot! Most people recognize the scent as "Earl Grey tea," which is not surprising since Earl Grey is tea flavored with (actual) bergamot. Also in the front yard I have a small planting of apple mint that has survived despite being nearly choked out by stilt-grass. (Most of my garden is choked with stilt-grass this year.) Apple mint reminds me a lot of spearmint as far as its scent and color, but the leaves are slightly fuzzy. Maybe that's where the name comes from, since it doesn't smell like apples. The leaves have the pale green, fuzzy look of young apple foliage.
There are other mints out there. I don't grow pennyroyal. I love its name, but I once had a plant and the smell reminded me very pungently of a flea collar.
I've tried to grow Corsican mint, but I can't seem to keep it alive for long. I keep buying it, because it looks like the most adorable tiny-leafed, mossy groundcover, but with a strong minty smell. I would love to have pathways made of Corsican mint. The problem seems to be keeping it consistently moist and not letting taller plants shade it out. Maybe someday.
I saw on-line that there is a plant called "banana mint." Does it really smell like bananas? I'm going to have to order one soon and find out.
So what do I use all this minty goodness for?
Surprisingly little. When I was a kid, I would have loved to have had access to all that fresh mint for potpourri and goodness knows what other mad concoctions. I would have filled sachets with the dried leaves. I would have strewn my room with it, and maybe tried packing some in oil as an attempt at enfleurage.
As an adult, I have a few recipes that call for mint (spearmint), and a couple of times my daughter and I tried distilling peppermint oil using a pot, a small glass bowl, an upside-down lid and some ice. We did produce minty water with a slight sheen of oil on it. Mostly, though, I just rub the mint leaves as I pass by and remark on how good it smells.
I do like sweet tea with a hint of mint in it. For some reason, it's easier to make with dried peppermint. Fresh leaves seem to give a sort of green flavor to tea. It could be a matter of method--maybe fresh leaves need to steep in much cooler water. Spearmint also adds a nice hint of mint.
Methods of making sweet iced tea vary and people can be quite passionate about their own method. Here's mine, for tea with a hint of mint.
Sweet Tea with a Hint of Mint
Put 4 cups of boiling water in a glass measuring cup with 2 iced tea bags (or 4 regular size) and steep for five minutes. Add a peppermint tea bag for the last minute, or steep longer for more flavor.
Mix in sugar (between 1/2 cup and 1 cup, depending on preferred sweetness) while tea is hot. Fill a 2-quart plastic pitcher more than halfway with (fresh) ice cubes. Pour sweetened tea over ice and stir well. Add more ice if necessary to bring to 2 quarts. Serve.