Peppermint candy, peppermint tea, peppermint oil, and peppermint bark are all great reasons for growing your own peppermint.
Like other mints, peppermint (Mentha x piperita) is easy to grow. It tends to spread, so you can let it run wild as a fragrant ground cover, or rein it in as a container plant. However you grow it, peppermint is sure to add a delightful fragrance and flavor to your foodscape! Just be sure you understand how tenacious this plant is - it is considered an invasive plant in many parts of the world.
The mint family
The mint family (Lamiaceae) has grown alongside humanity since prehistory. It is a huge family that includes basil, oregano, thyme, rosemary, sage, marjoram, bee balm, lemon balm, lavender, savory, and many others. Mints are perennial plants that spread using rhizomes. Mint leaves have glands that produce aromatic oils. This is why they smell so lovely. Most mint plants have square stems. Flowers grow on spikes, and are generally a lovely blue or purple. If you look closely, you will see that mint flowers have four stamens and five fused petals, with two petals pointing up and three petals pointing down. Mints can tolerate drought and poor soil, making them an excellent choice for difficult areas.
The peppermint plant
Peppermint is a hybrid between spearmint (Mentha spicata) and water mint (M. aquatica). Water mint thrives in acidic wetland areas of Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa, and is now naturalized around the world. Traditionally used in South Africa to treat depression, water mint has been found to contain naringenin, an MAO inhibitor. Spearmint, of chewing gum fame, got its name because of its pointed leaf tips. The volatile oils and menthol of spearmint have made it a popular addition to toothpaste and baked goods. It can also be used as an insecticide against moths. Spearmint prefers partial shade, but can be grown in full sun to nearly full shade. [Did I mention how rugged mint plants are?] Because peppermint is a hybrid, it does not produce seeds and can only be propagated vegetatively.
Peppermint leaves are dark green with reddish veins, and they contain more menthol than spearmint. Peppermint has a fibrous root system. There are several different peppermint cultivars to choose from. My favorite is ‘Chocolate Mint.’ If you chew a leaf, fresh from the plant, you’d swear you were eating a peppermint patty! And no calories! Other peppermint cultivars include:
How peppermint grows
Peppermint loves lots of sunlight, but can also be grown in partial shade. Peppermint will grow 12 to 36 inches tall, but it can also be mowed regularly to keep it short. [And it smells amazing when you do!]. Peppermint is easy to grow from cuttings, simply make sure there is a node somewhere on the stem, cover it with soil and keep it moist until new growth emerges. Then allow the soil to dry out between waterings. Because of its preference for moisture, peppermint and other mints will need to be irrigated regularly during our California summers. As rugged as this plant is, once it becomes established, it is pretty difficult to kill. They may start slowly, but then there’s no stopping them!
Peppermint pests and diseases
The same volatile oils that give peppermint it’s refreshing flavor also work to deter many common pests, including mosquitoes! Mint root borers and webspinning spider mites are the most common mint pests in the Bay Area. Nematodes, cutworms, aphids, and grasshoppers may all take a bite out of your peppermint plants, but these pests are not normally much of a problem. Also, beneficial insects, such as the spider mite predator (Neoseiulus fallacis) will fight off more common pests without any effort on your part. All you have to do is avoid using broad spectrum pesticides.
Young peppermint plants grow slowly, so competition from weeds can be a problem. Also, some fungal diseases, such as verticillium wilt, anthracnose, and leaf spot diseases may occur, especially on older plants.
Harvesting and using peppermint
You can snip off fresh stems or leaves anytime for immediate use. For drying or distillation, leaves and flowers can be harvested as soon as flowers begin to open. Peppermint’s cooling properties have made it popular topical treatment for muscle pain, tension headaches, and itching. There is even research that demonstrates peppermint is able to provide some relief for irritable bowel syndrome. The aroma of peppermint has also been shown to improve memory and alertness! This is a truly useful plant that takes little care.
Too much peppermint can cause skin irritation or heartburn, but you’d have to use an awful lot of it. Also, some people are allergic to peppermint, but it’ s rare. If you take medications fro heart conditions, high blood pressure, or to decrease stomach acid, you should use peppermint with caution. [Did you know that peppermint is used in plumbing and construction to help locate leaks? I didn’t either.]
You can beat the summer heat with a spray bottle filled with water and just a few drops of peppermint oil. [It’s easy to make your own peppermint oil. Simply fill a container with a light oil - I use extra virgin olive oil - and a bunch of peppermint leaves. Cover and allow it to sit for a few days. Strain out all the solids and that's it! You have your very own peppermint oil!]
If you ever eat too much, nothing helps ease discomfort faster than a cup of strong peppermint tea.
Find a place in your foodscape for peppermint today!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!