A Plant Family to Love

What do all these plants have in common?[1]

Did you figure it out? You might be surprised to learn that they’re all in the mint family.

Where would we be without mint? We find it in toothpaste and chewing gum, candy canes and those buttery candies you get at wedding receptions. It’s an essential ingredient in Thai lime beef salad, one of my favorite dishes. Life without mint just wouldn’t be the same.

We’re all familiar with peppermint and spearmint, and maybe you’ve seen or grown some other culinary mints—it comes paired with scents of pineapple, orange, and even chocolate. But the mints we think of as tasting “minty” are just the beginning. The mint family (Lamiaceae) is huge, with 236 genera and over 7,000 species! Did you realize that oregano is a member? So are sage, basil, rosemary, thyme, lemon balm, savory, marjoram, and lavender! Chia seeds are produced by a mint, Salvia hispanica, native to Mexico and Central America. Then there are the ornamentals, such as beebalm (Monarda), Jerusalem sage (Phlomis), skullcap, bugleweed (Ajuga), Lamb’s ears, hyssop (Agastache), and the colorful-leafed coleus. Even teak comes from a tree in the mint family!

As you can tell from the list of savory herbs, mints contain volatile oils with strong scents and flavors.  But few of us want to go around sniffing every plant in the garden, and tasting an unknown species is not a good idea! How else can mints be identified?

The easiest method is to examine the stems. Mints have squared-off stems. Sometimes it’s hard to see the shape, but you can easily feel it (just be careful around nettles!). The leaves are arranged in opposite (as opposed to alternate) pairs, and each pair is at right angles to the previous one.

Nepeta cataria_Catnip_BlkForest-CO_LAH_7690

The flower clusters are opposite too, arranged in paired clusters around the stem, with bare stem leaving a space between each whorl. Jerusalem sage is one good example; so is catnip.

The individual flowers are bilaterally symmetrical. The upper and the lower petals, respectively, are fused into a lip, so many gardeners describe the flower as a little mouth; to me they resemble claws. There are two upper lobes and three lower ones.

With so many unique characteristics, it’s easy to identify a plant as belonging to the mint family. You should get lots of practice, too. They’re everywhere!

[1] Plants, from left to right: Coleus, catmint (Nepeta mussinii, silver sage (Salvia argentea), bee balm (Monarda), hyssop (Agastache), Vermilion Bluffs Mexican Sage (Salvia darcyi ‘Pscarl’), ornamental oregano (Origanum hyb.); culinary sage (Salvia officinalis) leaves and flower head, common mint (Mentha), catnip (Nepeta cataria), Jerusalem sage (Phlomis), deadnettle (Lamium sp.), silver sage.

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