Grow peppermint, lemon balm, and catnip
by Corinna Wood & Lee Warren
first published in the Mountain Xpress, June 2010
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. Traditionally, peppermint has been used for easing nausea and digestive distress of all kinds as well as the symptoms of cold, fevers, and allergies.
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 elevator. Like many plants with a high amount of volatile oils, it’s also been used for headaches, circulation, stomach distress, and fevers.
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 stomach upsets 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.
Tips on Mints ~ for Garden Design
- Peppermint is a low-growing, almost ground cover-like plant, reaching 6” to 1’ with dark green (with hints of darker shades like brown), shiny leaves, and produces purplish/blue flowers.
- Lemon Balm is in the medium range and will reach between 1 and 2 feet, has wide shapely, and serrated leaves, in the lighter green range with yellow/white/greenish flowers.
- Catnip is the tallest of the bunch, teaching 3-4 feet, with a more compact, furry leaf, and purplish/blue flowers.
Simple Fresh Mint Tea
Take a handful of peppermint, lemon balm or catnip and place in a pint jar or a mug.
Pour boiling water over the fresh herb and cover with a small plate.
Let it steep for 5 minutes.
Drink warm or refrigerate for a cool and refreshing herbal tea!