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GARDEN FRESH

Mint, the Untamable

August 25, 1994|SYLVIA THOMPSON

A couple of weeks ago, I picked some peppermint sprigs to add to new peas. To keep them fresh on such a hot August day, I stuck the rest in a glass of water. I used all but two of the sprigs in the peas and set them, still in their glass, behind the kitchen sink next to the window, where I could enjoy their dark-green leaves. Every few days I added water to the glass, but otherwise I paid it little attention.

This morning, when I filled the glass again, the sprigs were flowering. They'd grown a foot. And sprouted six inches of roots.

Mint plants are like people who wake up with chirrups and burbles, who whistle while they scrub pots and pans, who shake your hand till you wince. Too much of a good thing.

I once brought home a sprig of blue mint. I planted it by the golden sage in an out-of-the-way corner. Sage is a member of the mint family and I thought the mix of blues, greens and golds would be gorgeous. It was . . . for a time. Then the aristocratic mint got bored and wanted our main bed for its playground. Twelve years later, I'm still pulling up long blue branches that pierce the air with their mintiness, and I'm cursing myself for my naivete.

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I've found the only way to level the playing field with mint is to make it difficult for the plant to grow. Give mint what it wants--rich, moist, well-drained soil in partial shade--and you're finished. What I've done is put mint in full sun in a few inches of gravely soil over a boulder! It prospers and sends out runners that I pinch off and bring indoors for a bouquet.

You probably don't garden over boulders, but you can certainly create a shallow bed far far away from other plants. Just be aware that whatever you line the patch with--brick, sheet metal, even concrete--mint will break through it. I've known mint to grow through my mother-in-law's garage wall. And don't believe anyone who says you can safely confine it in a big pot or a long flue tile sunk in the ground. The roots head for Mother Earth through the drainage hole on the bottom, and they're off and running. We're talking survival here.

The surest way to contain mint is in a container. The bigger the better; a half-barrel is not too large. Just be sure that whatever's immediately underneath it isn't soil.

Another way to dampen mint's ardor is to harvest often. Although the delicate whorls of purple, pink, or creamy flowers are also edible, the leaves will be more tender and flavorful if you keep the plant from flowering.

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Mint is as ardent about adding new members to the family tree as it is about reproducing itself. It cross-pollinates with glee. Although there are hundreds of mints in the world, only a handful are true mints, mints that you can reproduce from seed, and only a few of these are for cooking. Our old friend spearmint is the only familiar mint that breeds true.

Other true mints are less familiar, though no less appealing. Apple mint and pineapple mint have fuzzy pebbled leaves. Both hint at fruitiness, and pineapple is one of the loveliest of mints, marbled green, white and cream. The baby's-tears leaves of Corsican mint don't hint--their creme de menthe aroma is powerfully assertive. Field mint is spearmint-y, and its cultivar, Japanese mint, is an important source of menthol in Japan. The pungent flavor of horsemint turns up in many mint crosses--it's a prolific parent. Water mint isn't watery but biting, as is its cultivar, crispy curly mint.

The progeny of these true mints offer not only heavenly flavors for the kitchen but charming plants for the garden. For example, citrusy leaves of orange bergamot mint are edged in Chinese red. Blue balsam mint is purplish. So-called black stem peppermint actually has stems of chocolate-red.

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Speaking of chocolate, I was doubtful when I ordered chocolate mint, but it really does taste like the small, creamy blocks of chocolate known as Russian mints. Crinkled-leaf lemon bergamot mint is a delicious blend of lemon and mint. Ginger mint is spicy, grapefruit mint is indeed grapefruit-y.

And this merely scratches the surface of cross-pollinated mints. Curiosity about these blends can get the better of you, and suddenly you're a collector.

Still, most cooks know only the mint that's sold at the market. When it's unlabeled, it's either peppermint or spearmint. Both have deep-green oval leaves with pointed tips, pinked around the edges and etched with veins.

It's peppermint if the leaves are on 1/4-inch-long stems; spearmint leaves hug the stalk. And once you've seen how rumpled spearmint's leaves are next to smooth peppermint's, you'll always know which is which. Peppermint's leaves are thin and peppery, spearmint's deep and rich. Kentucky Colonel is considered the finest spearmint variety.

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Mint's assertive qualities must also be tempered in the kitchen. Taste as you add leaves--it's easy to miss the balance point, and suddenly you'll taste mint before the food it's meant to grace.

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