Grow Peppermint in Your Herb Garden

Companion planting with peppermint will discourage the cabbage butterfly and fresh peppermint tea cures indigestion.

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    A potted peppermint plant will provide fresh flavoring in winter.
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    According to ancient Greek legend, Pluto's wife Proserpina turned the young nymph Menthe into the peppermint plant out of jealousy.
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    As a companion plant peppermint discourages the white cabbage butterfly.

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Lately, more and more people hove begun to understand just how limited -— in both variety and nutritional value our "modern" diets hove become. This realization has sparked a new and widespread interest in the culinary and therapeutic uses of herbs . . . those plants which — although not well known today — were, just one short generation ago, honored "guests" on the dinner tables and in the medicine chests of our grandparents' homes. In this regular feature, MOTHER EARTH NEWS examines the availability, cultivation, and benefits of our "forgotten" vegetable foods and remedies . . . and — we hope — helps prevent the loss of still another bit of ancestral lore. 

The Peppermint Legend

According to ancient Greek legend, Pluto — the god who reigned over the underworld — became enraptured by a nymph named Menthe, causing his wife, Proserpina, to turn the young beauty into an herb and banish her forever to regions of shadows and moisture. And — like most such tales — the myth still has relevance today: This perennial, peppermint (Mentha piperita ), is often found growing wild in wet, shaded spots but it will also thrive in your own garden or window box.

How to Grow Peppermint

The herb is distinguished by a square, reddish, bitter stem. Red overtones are also visible in the leaves (which are darker green, larger, less crinkly, and more potent than those of spearmint), and the two- to three-foot spreading branches curve outward instead of growing straight up. Attractive rose-lavender flowers appear on cylindrical spikes in late July or August  and produce small, round, dark seeds. These, however, don't always reproduce true to the parent plant, so it's best to cultivate the herb from cuttings (which will generally root easily when placed in water) or — in the autumn — to plant small pieces of root two inches deep and six to eight inches apart.

Peppermint will grow almost anywhere that's out of the hot sun, but it prefers a moderately rich soil and at least partial shade. Because it spreads vigorously by underground runners, you might want to cultivate yours in containers (at least four inches in depth) or — in the garden — in beds surrounded by boards buried about six to eight inches in the earth (they'll help keep the mint from taking over your growing plot). When planted as a companion to cabbage — or strewn between any vegetables of the genus Brassica — peppermint helps deter the white cabbage butterfly.

Make sure the herb receives at least an inch of water a week, and to promote bushier growth, snip off the tender budding tips. If you want to assure a lengthy harvest, you should also keep the flowers pinched back but don't pick any leaves before the herb is 10 to 12 inches high, or you'll weaken the plant.

To dry peppermint, gather the foliage in the early morning before the dew has evaporated. The leaves will be at their best just prior to flowering when the level of essential oils is at its peak. Hang the bunches upside down in warm shade, or dry them in the oven at 150 degrees Fahrenheit then strip the leaves from the stems and store them in opaque jars with airtight lids. Clean, undried sprigs can also be frozen in plastic bags, or to prepare a decorative, flavorful addition to punch and iced tea just add leaves to the water when you refill an ice cube tray.

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