By Julie Christensen
Mint is sometimes called the herb of hospitality, a name that can be traced back to Greek mythology. The story goes that two strangers, a man and a woman, walked through a village. The villagers ignored the strangers and refused to provide them with food or drink. Finally, an older couple, Philemon and Baucis, invited the strangers into their home. The couple brushed mint leaves over their table to clean and freshen it before serving a meal to the travel-weary duo. Suddenly, the strangers revealed their true identity: they were the Greek Gods, Zeus and Hermes. To show their appreciation to Philemon and Baucis, the Gods turned the couple’s humble home into a temple.
Today, mint most often finds its place as a means of hospitality in a refreshing mint julep or glass of cold lemonade served to a guest on a hot summer day. But mint is equally at home in salads or sauces. Fresh leaves have the brightest color and flavor, but dried leaves can be used in a pinch.
Where to Find Fresh Mint Leaves
Wondering where to find mint leaves? First, consider growing some in your garden. Mint is among the simplest of herbs to grow because unlike Mediterranean herbs, it tolerates light shade and cold winter temperatures. In fact, mint is so easy to grow that it can quickly become too much of a good thing. Mint spreads by runners and will quickly take over your garden if given free rein. Plant it in a pot sunken in the ground or among other vigorous plants that can hold their own. Trim mint back frequently to keep it in check and divide it every 3 to 4 years.
Hardy between USDA zones 5 and 9, mint grows in all but the coldest parts of the United States. If you live north of zone 5, simply pot it up in the fall and keep it on a kitchen windowsill. It gets a bit leggy when grown indoors, but doesn’t require as much sun as most herbs. Cut it back to keep it compact. Mint prefers rich, moist soil with a pH between 6.0 and 6.8.
Mint sometimes grows wild in woodland areas or near old abandoned farmsteads. Be careful, though, because stinging nettle slightly resembles mint. Crush a few leaves with your foot. You’ll recognize true mint by its sweet, fresh fragrance. Close relatives, catnip and catmint, have an herbal scent but don’t smell quite the same.
Finally, most grocery stores now carry fresh mint in the produce section. These small packages typically cost between $2 and $4 — a hefty price to pay, considering you can buy an entire plant for your garden for the same price. However, in the middle of winter with no nursery plants in sight, you may have to resort to this option if you want fresh mint. Remove the mint from its package and wrap it in a slightly moist paper towel. Place the mint in a zipped plastic bag and store it in the refrigerator. Use the mint within 3 days.
Where to Find Dried Mint Leaves
Like most dried herbs, dried mint leaves lack the vibrant color and fragrance of fresh mint, and are best used in salads, cooked dishes, or hot tea.
The most economical source of dried mint leaves is your own garden. If you have a large mint patch, you’ll probably have more than you can use fresh. Harvest the mint leaves when they’re still young and small. Older mint leaves turn bitter and woody. Cut a few sprigs 6 to 8 inches in length. Bundle the sprigs together and wrap the ends with a bit of twine. Place the sprigs in a brown paper bag to keep insects out and hang the bags in a warm, dry location, such as a shed or attic. Dry the mint for up to two weeks, or until the leaves are completely dry. Remove the leaves from the stems and store them in an air-tight container, such as a plastic bag or bottle. Use dried mint within one year for best flavor.
If you lack an herb garden, look for dried mint in the spice section of your supermarket. Store them tightly sealed in a dark location.
Fresh Mint Leaves in Winter
Craving fresh mint lemonade in the winter? One clever way to preserve fresh mint flavor is by freezing fresh mint leaves. For year-round flavor, cut fresh mint leaves during the summer. Fill ice cube trays with mint leaves, placing 1 tablespoon in each compartment. Add water and freeze. Store the mint ice cubes in sealed freezer bags. To flavor lemonade or tea, simply add 1 ice cube to each glass.
Want to learn more about mint? Visit the following sites:
Mint in the Garden [PDF] from Utah State University.
The World of Mint [PDF] from The University of California Davis.
When she’s not writing about gardening, food and canning, Julie Christensen enjoys spending time in her gardens, which includes perennials, vegetables and fruit trees. She’s written hundreds of gardening articles for the Gardening Channel, Garden Guides and San Francisco Gate, as well as several e-books.