by Corinna Wood and Lee Warren
Imagine a glass of ice-cold peppermint tea on a hot day. Or the cheerful, earthy fragrance of lemon balm when you pinch a leaf as you walk by. Or a playful young cat rolling with ecstasy in the catnip in the nearby herb garden.
Cooling in nature and filled with aromatic oils, plants in the mint family delight us in countless ways. In particular, peppermint, lemon balm, and catnip are some of our favorite, easy-to-grow herbs.
Peppermint (Mentha x piperita)
First of all, when transplanting peppermint, make sure to put it in a place where you’re prepared for it to expand, as it spreads aggressively by roots. Our peppermint patch sends out runners several feet beyond its bed, even in the midst of a gravel path (you can also pull it out of those places you don’t want it). Planting in an outdoor planter is an option for containing it.
Fresh peppermint leaves can be picked and chewed for an instant hit of flavor or used in recipes that call for mint such as tabouleh (a middle eastern salad) or lamb dishes. Traditional herbailists used peppermint for easing digestive distress of all kinds.
Because it smells good, tastes yummy, and is very safe, it’s often used for children. In fact, since Corinna’s son Dylan was a wee toddler, he’s harvested fresh peppermint for the family at teatime. At grandma’s house, with the peppermint patch at the edge of the driveway, he would routinely pick a handful of stalks to play with, sniff, and eat, to stave off carsickness on the curvy roads back to their mountain home.
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis)
Super easy to grow, lemon balm thrives in the cool season (spring and fall), withstands the heat like a champ, and even tolerates some shade. Red Moon Herbs recently expanded from a few lemon balm plants to a lush bountiful circular bed more than 20 times the size of the original plants. We duplicated the plants from cuttings by taking the top couple of inches off an existing lemon balm plant, stripping the bottom leaves, and keeping these watered in some sandy potting soil. The cuttings soon grew roots and were ready to be planted. In less than a year, we had as much as we could harvest!
Just crushing the leaves of this plant and inhaling deeply will give you, immediately, a sense of its traditional use as a gentle mood supporter.
Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
As the name implies, cats love this plant as it contains a constituent that causes them temporary euphoria! Not euphoria producing in humans, it is nonetheless a lovely plant to include in the home garden for beauty and function. As easy to grow as the others, we usually start them from transplants. Catnip is a pleasant and relaxing tea for the stomach or just winding down before bedtime. As you plant your garden, note that catnip crosses with lemon balm, so it’s best to keep them separate.
First published in the Mountain Xpress, 2010