Part 5: How to use Mint.

There are around two dozen species of mint, with many more dozens of cultivars, which have hundreds of different names in English alone. Spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint, and apple mint are the most common known and grown at home. Some plants that are given a name that includes the word mint aren't mint but are so called because they have a very similar flavour or scent, such as the Western Australian Peppermint Tree, Agonis flexuosa. Having mint in the name doesn't necessarily mean a plant is edible, so make sure you have the right type of mint before eating it. There are also plants that look like mint, grow like mint, are related to mint, and are edible - such as lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) - but they aren't actually mint. True mint is from the Mentha genus, which is where the word menthol comes from.

Mint is a perennial plant that loves water, and it can grow in quite boggy conditions. This makes it a great plant for growing on the edge of a pond or in an area of poor drainage. However, as much as mint loves water, it's also a very stubbornly hardy plant that can tolerate much dryer conditions as well. It grows well in cool shady areas, but also does just fine in direct sun and can even tolerate some rather extreme heat so long as it has sufficient water. As such, it can be grown just about anywhere except for extreme cold as it's not a fan of being frozen and buried under snow. In cold areas it can be grown outdoors as an annual over the warmer months, and it can also be grown in a greenhouse, and does great as an indoor plant.

The wonderful ability of mint to grow just about anywhere creates a problem however, in that not only can it grow anywhere, if given a chance it will grow everywhere! Mint is best grown in a pot, because it spreads through runners, and in ideal conditions can quickly take over a garden, or a lawn. It can also be grown from seed, so if your mint plant flowers, it might be wise to cut the flowers off as soon as they're starting to die back before the seeds are ripe and starting to drop. If you want to grow it in the ground, that can be done by putting it into a pot, and burying the pot in the ground to constrict the roots. It will need to be kept an eye on and regularly trimmed however as the branches can sprawl along the ground and take root and spread that way as well, so regular pruning is required. Mint can be pruned very hard, it can be mowed like a lawn – some varieties can even be grown as a substitute lawn - and it will come back with a vengeance. Indeed if you want your mint plant to thrive and give you lots of fresh new growth, periodically prune it right back to near ground level.

Most varieties of mint produce various shades of purple flowers, though some can be pink or white, and bees love them. Some people try to claim that mint will deter flies and mosquitos and other undesirable insects, but in my experience mosquitos love hanging out under the mint where it's moist, and many types of flies are not only not bothered by it but go to the other extreme and are attracted to the flowers just like bees are. After all, even common houseflies like to suck up a bit of sweet nectar now and then, and who can blame them, it's good stuff.

Mint leaves are the part of the plant that we use in food, sauces, and drinks, as well as for flavouring various types of lolly/candy, chocolate, ice cream, chewing gum, cough drops, and toothpaste. If you've ever had anything that was flavoured as mint, peppermint, spearmint, or menthol, you have some idea what mint tastes like. If you haven't tried any of these things, mint is most commonly described as warm, fresh, sweet, sometimes peppery (in a black peppercorn way), with a cooling aftertaste. Although many uses of mint involve treats such as sweets, desserts, and cocktails, some people find it hard to like mint because they associate the flavour with less foody things such as cough drops and toothpaste. Extracting enough mint flavouring from fresh home grown mint leaves without ending up with a compost bin full of spent mint leaves to put a teaspoon of mint flavouring into things like chocolates and ice creams tends to be the domain of the industrial world. Mint flavouring extracts are easy and cheap enough to buy to do that with, so very few people extract their own mint at home, but some do. Fresh home grown mint is mostly used in salads and drinks, a few cooking recipes that are light and cooked quickly such as stir fries, and some freshly homemade mint sauce to pour over a slice of roasted lamb is quite common in Australia.

Different types of mint have slightly different flavour profiles. Peppermint as the name suggests, is the variety that has the most peppery taste to it. Spearmint lacks that pepper flavour and thus tends to have an all round fresh cooling flavour. Apple mint has a slight fruitiness reminiscent of apples, and chocolate mint despite it's name doesn't taste anything like chocolate, it just has brown leaves and thus looks the part.

Mint leaves hold their flavour best when fresh. Once dried they still smell minty, but the taste is dramatically reduced, but this is a good option if only a very mild hint of mint is what is wanted. Most types of mint will last for a couple of days once picked so long as they're kept cool. Spearmint is the outlier here, once picked the leaves will wilt and start to lose their flavour very quickly. Spearmint is best picked as sprigs and put in some fresh water like one would do with a fresh flower until it needs to be used. Mint can be stored frozen as dry loose leaves in a container. It can also be boiled in a bit of water, cooled, and then mint and water together put into ice cube trays in the freezer for dropping into a cool drink on a hot day to give it a cool minty flavour as the ice melts in the drink.
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