Gardening

the mint family and some unexpected members, with ken druse

DON’T ANSWER this question too quickly; take your time and think it over. How many mints are you growing in your garden? When Ken Druse suggested the other day to me that we talk about mints on the show, I thought, “Spearmint, peppermint, what?”

But then I thought a moment longer and looked around and realized there were mint family relatives all over the garden, even unintentionally among the lawn weeds. So the many faces of mints is our topic today. Including some real surprises, like that the shrub called beautyberry or Callicarpa is a mint (those are the flowers, above, of the native species; photo by Bob Peterson via Wikimedia Commons).

As many as we managed to remember in our chat, we forgot loads, like Caryopteris, and mountain mint, or Pycnanthemum. So many mints, so little time!

You all know Ken Druse, a regular visitor to the show and author of 20 garden books and also a longtime friend. When he’s not managing the antics of two troublemaking but gorgeous canines, he manages his extensive garden in New Jersey.

Plus, enter in the comments box at the bottom of the page to win a copy of Ken’s book “The Scentual Garden” (affiliate link), about fragrance in plants, including mints like the one beneath a chair in his garden below.

Read along as you listen to the July 26, 2021 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

mint family members, with ken druse

 

 

Margaret Roach: Hi, Ken. I changed your intro.

Ken Druse: Gorgeous canines. They’re handsome, it’s true. I don’t know who’s managing who.

Margaret: [Laughter.] I left that part out. Since, we’re talking mints today, which are often aromatic, let’s have a giveaway of your latest book, “The Scentual Garden,” about scent and fragrance and so forth. O.K.?

Ken: Yeah, that’s lovely. Thank you.

Margaret: O.K., good. Good. When you said it, as I said in the intro, I was like, “What? Mint, what do we want to talk about?” [Laughter.] And then you and I both got to sort of digging around and reading about mints, the mint family. So tell us a little bit about the breadth of it.

Ken: Well, I could stand in one place and just turn and look and say there’s, “Oh, there’s bee balm and there’s lemon balm.” And there’s just so many mint family relatives, and you can often recognize them. Not only because many are fragrant when you rub the leaves, but also because many have square stems. But there are over 230 genera and over 7,000 species of mint relatives, plants in the Lamiaceae family.

Margaret: So the mints, so there’s like 200 and something, what did you say, 230 or 240 or something? I mean, I see different numbers everywhere, different genera of plants in that family. And they’re not all herb garden favorites, either. I mean, the range is really quite amazing.

Ken: There’s perennials, and annuals and shrubs and sub-shrubs. So yeah, the range is amazing.

Margaret: So I guess if we’re going to … And you said square stems and that’s one of the kind of fun things that makes you feel like a science-y geek or something like that, where you can amaze your friends [laughter]. It’s like a diagnostic thing to know if something is a mint relative, if you put your fingers around the stem, you will feel the sort of edges, it has edges, right?

Ken: Right. Flat sides. And if you happen to cut a Coleus stem and look at it in cross-section, it’s a square.

Margaret: Yeah. So that’s kind of a fun, little nerdy thing to do. So maybe we should just start with the minty mints, the real mints [genus Mentha]. The ones that we say, “Oh, I have some peppermint to put in my whatever, my tea” or whatever. So do you grow any of those? [Below, a sprig of spearmint Ken rooted easily in water.]

Ken: I do. My old time favorite, all-time favorite is a spearmint called ‘Kentucky Colonel.’ And I think it’s called that because of mint julep. And it’s a little fuzzy leaf, and it’s kind of stiff, and there’s so many people that are growing this thing and putting a label on it. I’m not sure that what I have and think is ‘Kentucky Colonel’ is, but if you go to a reputable source, like Well Sweep Herb Farm, I think they have 50 mints, but they do have that spearmint, which is in general, my favorite for using in, oh so many things. Strawberries cut up. So it’s when you rub the leaf, it’s wonderfully sweetly, fragrant, and it’s also delicious, but I also really like a peppermint that’s called chocolate mint.

Margaret: Oh.

Ken: I don’t know why exactly it’s called chocolate mint. It has dark stems, almost black stems. It’s very pretty. And you rub the leaf of that and it cleans out your nasal passages.

Margaret: [Laughter.] Well, I’ll note that for the next time I need that effect.

Ken: There’s a Cuban mint that’s called ‘Mojito,’ and there’s Egyptian mints. Oh, there’s so many mints. Curly mint, I used to grow Mentha spicata var. crispa. It’s got a curly edge. Things like that. Lots of things.

Margaret: Yeah. The one thing about a lot of these—I guess we could call them culinary mints or whatever, the ones that we’re most familiar with—is that they can be a little ambitious and a little lusty.

Ken: [Laughter.] Uh-oh.

Margaret: Right?

Ken: Yes. The best thing is to grow them in a pot, where they can’t escape. They’ll even try to get out the drainage hole, if they can.

Margaret: Yes.

Ken: I have my spearmint growing in a raised bed, that’s rock on one side and pavement on the other. And it’s worked, it’s been there for several years and it’s just there.

Margaret: Imprisoned.

Ken: Imprisoned, right. Because they run, or do they gallop?

Margaret: Yeah. They gallop eventually. Yeah, they do, they do.

Ken: I guess, they’re pretty hardy, too.

Margaret: Yeah. And so there’s more relatives, mint relatives in the herb garden, and you mentioned a couple of them at the beginning. But when you were just talking about chocolate mint and this and that, and the other thing, I was thinking about all the basils, that have different … And basil is a mint, isn’t that correct?

Ken: Yes, that’s in the mint family, too.

Margaret: Right. And those come in a range of fragrances, flavors—however, we want to talk about it. The compounds in them are quite distinctive and even in leaf color they can vary. So that’s another one. What about some of the others in the kind of herb-garden traditional world?

Ken: Well, there’s oregano and marjoram and thyme, and surprising to me when we started talking about mints, rosemary and lavender are also in the mint family. They’re sub-shrubs, and they’re woody.

I’ve got a wonderful lavender blooming—well, it’s been blooming for well over a month. And it’s very short and I can’t find the tag because I can’t find any tags [laughter]. They’re all gone.

And I have another lavender almost next to it. And this is growing in quite a bit of shade. And the one next to it is leggy, and has the tall wands, like four of them. This one is compact. It looks dwarf because I think it lays down. It’s only about 8 inches tall and it doesn’t have long wands. The flowers are right on top of the foliage. And it has that unmistakable unique lavender fragrance.

Margaret: My favorite, actually. My favorite of all.

Ken: Oh, really?

Margaret: Yeah, yeah.

Ken: You never told me that.

Margaret: Oh, I love lavender, yeah. And I don’t use a lot of products with fragrance, but if there is something like a hand soap, you know what I mean—with those kinds of things, I’ll always go for the lavender. Yeah. I don’t know why; just like it.

But you said flowers and you were talking about things with flowers. That would be the other way that things in the mint family are recognizable, is that the flowers—there is a certain similarity, obviously, in the floral structure.

Ken: Right. When my mints bloom, they have little, stubby wands. You could call them, I guess. I don’t know. They’re usually about 2-1/2 inches tall, and they have little tiny pink flowers on them. But if I look at Monarda, it’s like those flowers are blown up, and you can really see that they’re tubular. Well, the hummingbirds love them.

And you were talking about fragrance and I have a soap that has bergamot in it. We’re taking a left turn here because … Bergamot’s in Earl Grey tea, but it’s not really Monarda, it’s a kind of orange, but the Monarda smells like the bergamot. And so that’s one of its common names, and bee balm. And we have that wild one that grows along the road, that’s a native plant and also not terrible—fistulosa, Monarda fistulosa [above, at Ken’s]. I know we have that, too. The pink one.

Margaret: Yeah. It’s kind of a lavender-pink. Yeah. It’s wonderful.

Ken: The Monarda didyma that are available—there’s just an incredible range. You grow in for the flowers, even though the foliage is fragrant, too. [A look at the best bee balms, from Mt. Cuba Center research.]

Margaret: Yeah. Now, that’s one where you really know it’s a mint. I mean, if you look before it’s flowering, you can see that prominent square stem in the foliage even looks like a minty mint. Even we, when we started looking and doing a little homework prompted by your suggesting the subject, we were surprised at how many things and some are real oddballs [laughter]. So are there any others in the sort of … Well, Ajuga, that most of us never get rid of in our gardens—Ajuga, bugleweed, or whatever it’s called, is a mint, right?

Ken: Right.

Margaret: So, yeah. But are there any other herbal ones that we forgot or is that …

Ken: I think of catmint as herbal, Nepeta.

Margaret: Right. Right.

Ken: I don’t grow germander. I don’t know if, you do. Teucrium.

Margaret: Teucrium. No, I don’t. But that’s another one. Right?

Ken: Horehound.

Margaret: Right. Marrubium I think that is, yeah.

Ken: And hyssop [genus Hyssopus], and I don’t mean Agastache, which is sometimes called hyssop, too. Let’s see, you mentioned the basil. Patchouli.

Margaret: Oh, how funny? I didn’t know. Yeah. So whatever. Obviously, I don’t grow that.

Ken: All the salvias.

Margaret: Right. Sages, of course, of course. How could we forget? Right, right. [Above, ornamental Salvia ‘Van Houttei.’]

Ken: I didn’t forget. I almost forgot [laughter].

Margaret: Yeah. Saved by the bell. And that’s a whole world unto itself. I remember a few years ago or a million, visiting the garden of … Speaking of derailing, I’m going to derail us back in time to a garden visit we made in California, in Northern California together to the garden of Betsy Clebsch, who wrote the book about salvias and was a great grower of salvias, so many different kinds. Just the diversity.

And so for many of us, we think of the culinary sage, and yet there’s all these ornamental ones and so on and so on and so on. But that’s a classic, those flowers—you can tell those are the mint family, with a little lip and everything, right?

Ken: And it’s a lot more than turkey stuffing.

Margaret: [Laughter.] Yes. It indeed is. It indeed is.

Ken: There’s so many ornamental ones. I would say they’re hardy to Zone 7, most of them—of the really ornamental ones. And they’re grown as temperennials, some people say. They’re perennial, but they’re not that hardy, but some of them are, and do have flowers. Boy, in our lives, we have seen some beautiful salvias I must say.

Margaret: Do you remember that day going to visit her?

Ken: Oh, yeah. And the double fence. Oh, my gosh. It’s so vivid. It’s amazing. I remember almost everything we did on our travels.

Margaret: Yeah, yeah. Going to California together was fun, and all kinds of other crazy places [laughter]. But yeah, the double fence for people who don’t know… There’s a lot of deer there and she didn’t want a big deer barrier, 8 feet tall, to keep them out. So she had two parallel 4-foot fences, maybe 5 feet apart. And I think she put roses in between, in the gap in between.

But the deer, because of the way their eyesight works, they won’t go into a tight space; they perceive it as a place they’re going to get stuck. So they didn’t get into the garden, inside the second fence, because they wouldn’t jump into this 5-foot-wide space between the two parallel 4-foot fences. So it’s a great way to keep out deer without being in the Fort Knox kind of a situation.

Ken: It was very pretty, actually.

Margaret: Oh, it was beautiful. And she planted all in between, in that area. Yeah.

Ken: Yeah. Deer have to have a safe place to land and if, they don’t see that, they go away.

Margaret: Yeah, please go away [laughter]. One thing that was on the list of mints, in the mint family: Callicarpa. Did I make that up?

Ken: Well, I say American beautyberry [photo above by Forest and Kim Starr via Wikimedia Commons]. The weird things that are mints: bells of Ireland [Moluccella laevis] is a mint.

Margaret: Oh.

Ken: Have you ever grown that? I think it’s a biennial.

Margaret: Like a million years ago, but yeah.

Ken: Yeah, me too. A million years ago. And I mentioned the agastaches. But the woody plants, like you said, the beautyberry and Clerodendrum.

Margaret: Huh? Yeah. The beautyberry. Again, like I’ve never really looked closely at the stems, or what’s holding the leaves. I’ve never looked closely.

Ken: And I’ve never looked at the flowers.

Margaret: No.

Ken: That’s a dead giveaway. If you ever see a bloom, the have flowers that look just like the spearmint flower.

Margaret: Right. And because what we grow that for is the unbelievably strange purplish-colored fruits, or in some cases white fruits. Right?

Ken: Yes.

Margaret: Callicarpa is one that I was really surprised by, probably, more than any other one. The mints, I think one of the other traits is that—and you mentioned this, but…  Now I don’t have Callicarpa in the garden at the moment, but I wanted to go out and like rub the leaves or the stem, or bruise the stem and see, if it has an aroma. You know what I mean? Because most of them have some sort of volatile compound somewhere in their green tissue or their stems that is another giveaway.

Ken: That reminds me of Vitex. [above, V. negundo at Ken’s.]

Margaret: Vitex, right. Another shrub. I haven’t grown that. I remember it was kind of a thing for a while, but I don’t have it in the garden. I’ve never had it.

Ken: Well, in New York City, you see Vitex around—Vitex agnus-castus. And I don’t think that’s super-hardy and you probably couldn’t grow it, but I grow one that’s Vitex negundo, and it has another name because it’s … I always think it’s laciniata.

Margaret: It’s something with a L, maybe?

Ken: No, it’s got cut leaves. That’s why.

Margaret: Oh, O.K.

Ken: Oh, I know. There’s one that’s … I think it’s cannabifolia or something. Because it looks like-

Margaret: Oh, that it looks like cannabis [laughter]?

Ken: Yeah. But that’s not the one I have. The one I have is like, you take the cannabis leaf and then you cut it some more, so it’s very feathery and beautiful. And it’s been down to 10-below, and it’s very nice. But the point, if you rub the stem, especially a young stem, and smell it, it’s got a smell that’s sort of Christmas-y. A little bit of nutmeg and cinnamon, just very faint. Kind of like bayberry, if you can imagine.

Margaret: Right. And it’s a mint; it’s in the mint family.

Ken: And it’s a mint and it’s woody. A woody shrub. I guess actually, it could be a tree.

Oriental bittersweet seedling in a sea of ground ivy or GlechomaMargaret: Right. I have a couple of prominent lawn weeds—not that I have any lawn weeds [laughter]—that are mints that I think may take over the earth. Yeah.

Ken: I don’t have a lawn; I don’t have a grass lawn. I have a Glechoma lawn.

Margaret: Glechoma hederacea—what do they call it, ground ivy? Is that what they call it? Creeping Charlie, is that another name for it? [Above, ground ivy with a seedling Oriental bittersweet in it for good measure.]

Ken: There’s a lot of names. Yeah, ground ivy is good. You’re safer because some of those other names are shared by Lysimachia and stuff.

Margaret: Right. True. But Glechoma hederacea. And that’s another one where the species name, hederacea, comes from Hedera, the genus for ivy. So it’s telling you what it’s like, it’s like an ivy. It’s the Glechoma that’s like an ivy, it looks like an ivy. Yeah.

Ken: I’m almost speechless. There is so much, and the leaves this year are like geraniums. They’re huge.

Margaret: I agree. And I was thinking maybe we should put out a call to everybody listening to start a support group for survivors of Glechoma hederacea [laughter].

Ken: Or maybe somebody could tell you, if they didn’t use a chemical and got rid of it. I once read that you can get rid of it, or discourage it, with the pH, but I don’t think that’s true [laughter].

Margaret: Right. And for many, many, many years I had it in one area, quite a distance from where it is now in many other areas. I used to hand pull it. It has-

Ken: It’s a vine?

Margaret: Yeah. It’s kind of viney and like a strawberry, it kind of sets down with little light stolons, I think. I’m not sure–you know what I mean? It’s kind of has little runners. There’s the rooted-in sort of beginning of it. And then it sends out not little but long, thin strings, and then those root down. I used to just pull it, carefully. It was under control for, I don’t know. It would be in the same place, and I’d do the same thing every year. I mean, we’re talking 20 or more years of that.

And now, it’s at the edge of every bed. Do you know what I mean? It creeps in from the lawn to where I cut the edge of the beds. It loves that spot, as do many lawn weeds.

Ken: This year, it is everywhere. It’s everywhere. And it’s huge, and it’s smothering things. Do you have Prunella [below]?

Margaret: Yes. Prunella. Prunella vulgaris.

Ken: It’s a weed for some people, I don’t have a lot it.

Margaret: Oh, I have tons. You can have some.

Ken: [Laughter.] No, thank you. It does have nice flowers.

Margaret: It has little purple flowers, insects love them. There’s the lovers and the haters of Prunella, because it’s a native plant and it serves an ecosystem function and so forth. Again, if you were trying to have like a mown area for walking on or whatever, it sort of takes over. I mean, where it happens, it goes sideways in an ambitious manner. So yeah. That’s definitely a big one up here.

Ken: You were saying, when we were talking once, that any plant, if it’s in a place that it loves, it can become a problem.

Margaret: Yeah, I guess so. I guess that’s the case. Were there any others that we’ve forgotten to mention? I mean-

Ken: We mentioned a lot.

Margaret: A lot of mints.

Ken: Summer savory, winter savory. Do you grow things like that?

Margaret: No, have you?

Ken: No [laughter]. We didn’t mention lamb’s ears [Stachys]. We didn’t mention … I was trying to think of obedient plant. That’s also called false dragon’s head. Is that what that’s called? You know what I mean?

Margaret: Yeah. Obedient plant.

Ken: Physostegia.

Margaret: Physostegia, the obedient plant or false dragon plant.

Ken: That’s a native, too. And that has pinkish, dark pink flowers. It’s tall. And there’s a white one that’s very beautiful, actually. If it’s happy, it runs. And if it’s not happy, you get a little bit of a few plants, and it blooms late. So that’s a nice thing to have.

I’ve never grown Dittany [of Crete, Origanus dictamnus], but that’s an oregano, isn’t it?

Margaret: Oh, I don’t know.

Ken: You’ve not ever seen Dittany of Crete? Oh, so beautiful. Will that come back next year? Not for me [laughter].

Margaret: No. So the lamb’s ears, you said that and it made me yearn to have it back again. I had it for so many years and I had the big one with the extra-big foliage. ‘Helen von Stein’ or something.

Ken: Right.

Margaret: Yeah. Really, really fuzzy and silvery. I mean, forever and ever and ever, but again, a classic mint—it sends up this stem with the tiny little flowers all over it. If you really-

Ken: Except that one doesn’t flower very often, which is nice because the regular lamb’s ears flowers and then looks horrible.

Margaret: Yeah. But you can tell it’s a mint is what I’m saying, when it flowers.

Ken: Right, right.

Margaret: It gets those little lipped, tubular flowers, and that’s when you know for sure.

Ken: I think the stems might be square too.

Margaret: Oh, they are. Totally, yeah. And fuzzy and hilarious. But it makes me miss it. I don’t know why I don’t have it anymore, but I guess, it got overrun by something. And speaking of silvery things, Ballota. Have you ever grown Ballota?

Ken: No, no.

Margaret: Oh, that was one of my favorites. I think I had first seen it a million years ago at Wave Hill in a pot. And it’s another, very felted, silvery thing.

Ken: Oh, right.

Margaret: Yeah. Beautiful texture. And that silvery color—almost like it’s fabric-y, you know what I mean? It’s that-

Ken: They have that little dry garden and there’s Phlomis there.

Margaret: Phlomis.

Ken: I love Phlomis.

Margaret: Yes, yes, yes. So that’s another mint. O.K. good. Well you mentioned-

Ken: [Laughter.] We haven’t hit 2,000 yet.

Margaret: We haven’t. You mentioned earlier Well Sweep Herb Farm, a mail-order nursery and in-person nursery. It’s in New Jersey, actually, and for a long time. And they have probably most of these things that we’ve been talking about.

Ken: Absolutely.

Margaret: I think that was where I got my Ballota back in the day, decades ago, when the founder was still in charge. Cyrus, is that right?

Ken: Cy.

Margaret: Cy, right. Yeah.

Ken: There’s a lot of plants named by him or for him. There’s a wonderful Pelargonium that’s ‘Cy’s Sunburst.’ I love it. It’s so beautiful. I think there’s Cy mints and stuff, too. Anyway, their catalog now is online.

Margaret: Yeah, because they’re great. And it’s a family business, and it’s a really wonderful collection of herbs and good people. So we’ll do that. And we’ll also have the giveaway of “The Scentual Garden” by Ken Druse [laughter]. And so good to talk about mints with you, the wide world of mints. Pretty amazing.

Ken: Yeah. Now, I want to know more about where basil comes from because it’s loved all over the world. [More about basil’s origins and diversity is here, From Strictly Medicinal’s Richo Cech.]

Margaret: Yeah. All right. Well, we’ll look into that next then. All right. I’ll talk to you soon. Thank you.

Ken: Thanks, Margaret.

Margaret: Go out and pull some weeds. O.K.?

enter to win ‘the scentual garden’ by ken druse

I’LL BUY A COPY of “The Scentual Garden” by Ken Druse (affiliate link) for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box below:

Did one of these “mints” surprise you–or do you have a mint to mention that we didn’t have time to cover?

No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, August 3, 2021. Good luck to all.

(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)

 

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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the July 26, 2021 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

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