In Mint Condition

THE REAL DIRT

March 08, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

Each spring, my wife and I divide our yard into plots marked "His" and "Hers." Basically, I receive custody of the vegetable patch and compost heap, and she gets the rest.

Both of us work hard to whip the place into shape. Indeed, Meg is as proud and possessive of her turf as I am of mine.

In fact, the only notable difference is that my half of the yard smells like the Augean Stables, and hers does not.

While I am ankle-deep in animal fertilizers, and breathing heavily, Meg is immersed in her lilacs and lilies of the valley. It isn't fair, of course. One person shouldn't have all the fun. I've tried to explain this, but Meg won't listen.

She just doesn't know what she's missing.

Ah, the funky smells of spring. I may be the only man in Maryland who can get high on horse manure. And yet . . . and yet . . . there is one plant in Meg's plot whose scent I crave even more.

That plant is spearmint, a hardy perennial whose first leaves should be poking up through the ground within days. When the spearmint appears, I will be beside the tiny plant on hands and knees, alternately taking deep breaths and extoling its virtues.

What is a fruit salad or a pitcher of home-brewed iced tea without a sprig of fresh mint? Or a grasshopper pie? Or a roast lamb?

Mint oils gleaned from the plant's leaves and stems freshen up chewing gum and shaving cream. Farmers in the Northwest raise thousands of acres of mint, extract the oil by distillation and peddle it for $25 a pound for use in everything from antacids to toothpaste to cough drops.

Mint has been suggested as a cure for cancer, AIDS and altitude sickness, and used as a repellent for ticks and fleas. Dried mint leaves have been touted as an alternative to chewing tobacco, and Bolivian farmers may soon grow mint as a substitute for coca.

In medieval times, mint helped fight colic, flatulence and epilepsy. Housewives scattered mint leaves on cottage floors to mask foul odors.

I would raise mint in my own garden except for its belligerent growth habit. Once planted, it spreads rapidly by underground shoots, or rhizomes, and is virtually unstoppable. Mint is among the most invasive crops around, the Saddam Hussein of the herb world.

Mint is native to the Mediterranean and has been known since biblical times (Matthew 23:23). It still grows in ditches in the Holy Land. Crusaders spread it throughout Europe only slightly faster than the plant probably would have traveled itself.

The federal government maintains the nation's largest mint collection, 40 species and more than 800 plants, in a huge protected greenhouse at the National Clonal Germplasm Repository in Corvallis, Ore.

"We keep at least two plants of each type, just like Noah's Ark, in case something were to happen to mints elsewhere" on the planet, says Henrietta Chambers, curator of the mint collection.

Here, growing at a rate of 1/2 inch per day, are plants such as peppermint, apple mint, the attractive orange mint, pineapple mint, corn mint and eau de cologne mint, with its faint smell of lavender. Here also is the tiny Corsican mint, a popular ground cover that covers walkways to a height of 1/4 inch.

Mint asks little yet offers much to the home gardener, says Ms. Chambers. It thrives in sandy or loamy soil, in sunny areas or partial shade. Keep mint well-watered and check its horizontal growth by planting it inside a bottomless bucket buried just below ground level.

Gardeners should be aware that less popular mint varieties are sometimes relabeled and given more exciting names by certain nurserymen, says Dr. Arthur Tucker, a mint expert and professor of agriculture at Delaware State College.

"I've seen three different mints labeled 'chocolate' mint, all of which were previously known under other names," says Dr. Tucker.

There's also something on the market called peppermint seeds, even though peppermint plants don't set enough seed to harvest, he says. These are actually "a rank-smelling spearmint from Germany."

So what is a gardener to do?

"Buy mint in a pot and let your nose be your guide," he says.

"If it smells good, eat it."

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