Plants are part of a large family found around the world

April 09, 2009

By Doris Martinak, Victoria County Master Gardener

Edited by Charla Borchers Leon,
Victoria County Master Gardene
“How do I love thee, let me count the ways,” might apply to the family of mints.  The mint family, Lamiaceae, is quite large, prolific and found in many countries around the world.


Mint plants are survivors.  Possibly the dinosaurs partook of ancient mints.  Written histories concerning mints have existed for thousands of years.

According to Barbara Perry Lawton’s book, “Mints:  A Family of Herbs and Ornamentals,” in China, the written history of mints begins around 5000 B.C.  Around 3000 B.C. the first written records began appearing in Europe.  Through the centuries, mankind has used the Lamiaceae family for food, medicinal purposes, decoration and to ward off insects.


In our modern time, we also use mints for cooking, medicinal purposes, cosmetics, insecticides and no telling what else.

True mints belong to the mentha group of Lamiaceae.  Many of these plants are familiar to us such as peppermint, apple mint, chocolate mint, spearmint, orange mint and pennyroyal.  These are very pretty plants with varying shades of green leaves.


An identifying factor with these type plants is their square stems with leaves opposite one another on the stems.  Being the survivors that they are, these plants can be aggressive.

A master gardener training instructor recommended that we never plant them directly in the ground.  Of course, I had already planted mint in the ground in my flowerbed.  It is very easy to pull out, and I like the fragrance when a piece of mint is disturbed.

Some people have been known to let it grow into their grass because it smells so good when mowed.

When planting mint in a bed, it is advisable that it be planted in a can or container in the soil so that it can’t escape.  I am not certain how well that works because mints send out runners.


Mints like a fairly rich, moist soil but will survive in regular soil.  Like most things in South Texas, they appreciate some shade in the afternoon.  Taking a stem cutting and rooting it in water is one way to propagate mints.  Letting runners root is an easy way to get new plants.


Historically mints have been believed to help with digestion.  No doubt that is the prime reason restaurants offer mints after a meal.  Teas using various mints are quite popular as are recipes requiring mints.


The only of those listed above that is not recommended for food consumption is pennyroyal, which is toxic.  It is often used as an insect repellant to deter mosquitos and fleas.  Another use is in animal bedding to ward off insects.  Pennyroyal is a good ground cover.


In India, mentha oil is traded as a commodity.  Many products such as toothpaste, candy and cough drops use menthe oil.


There are numerous other members of the mint family  that do not belong to the mentha group.  Many of these were a surprise to me.  For instance, salvias, rosemary, lavender, Mexican mint cat’s whiskers and perilla, are all members of the mint family as are herbs such as the basils, oreganos and marjoram among others.


Scarlet sage, Salvia coccinea, is one of the prolific mint family survivors.  Years ago one of my neighbors gave me a start of this cultivar.  When it sprouted the following spring I was thrilled.  It still pops up every year.  Hummingbirds love its red bell-shaped flowers.

Agastache is another hardy blooming plant for our Texas heat.

These plants, along with other Lamiaceae members can be viewed at the Master Gardener Victoria Educational Gardens on the airport grounds.


Reading about the huge Lamiaceae family has been very interesting and fun.  I highly recommend Lawton’s book “Mints:  A Family of Herbs and Ornamentals.”  The “San Antonio Herb Society Cookbook” contains a number of good recipes.  “The Herb Quarterly” is a good publication with many interesting articles.

Planting more of this family in my yard and ferreting out recipes to try is on my to-do list.  Hopefully you too will consider looking into this fascinating subject.