Famous for their habit of spreading, intermingling and crossbreeding, mint varieties number in the hundreds, rather than dozens. Most mints prefer moist soil and at least some shade, and they all like to grow rampantly. Keep them in their own containers, or give them plenty of land so they can sprawl without choking out better behaved plants. Although the novice mint grower may find their numbers bewildering, a few varieties stand out as leading lights in the Mentha family.
Famous for its ability to revive aching feet when infused in herbal lotions, peppermint is among the tallest of the mints. Peppermint tea and candy boast reputations for soothing nausea and upset stomachs. Grow it near roses to deter aphids, or near home entrances to repel mice and ants. A variety known as "Crispa," or English black peppermint, is said to contain especially strong peppermint flavor.
Perhaps the most famous culinary mint, spearmint grows about 2 feet tall and has purplish stems and dark green leaves with pointed ends. Use it in ice teas, mint jelly, as a garnish for fruit salads and, of course, in mint juleps. While peppermint often comes to the rescue for other maladies, spearmint tends to star in mouth-related folk remedies—as a gargle for sore throats and cold sores, as a tooth cleaner and in breath-freshening infusions, candy and gum.
Among the top "anti-flea" herbs, pennyroyal often appears in herbal infusions, potpourris and crumbled leaf sachets designed to keep fleas away from household pets. In fact, one of pennyroyal's former alternate names, according to herbalist Adelma Grenier Simmons, was "flea-away." Yet, at one time, pennyroyal also starred in traditional English desserts, including "pennyroyal pudding." Significantly shorter than many other mints, pennyroyal makes a fragrant ground cover for shady spots. Common pennyroyal grows only to about 12 inches, and creeping pennyroyal 6 inches.
Even more diminutive than creeping pennyroyal, Corsican mint grows no higher than 1 inch. The curly, delicate-looking tiny leaves and flowers set it apart from other mints. Simmons likened their scent to crème de menthe, and recommends protecting it from harsh winters by putting sand over its diminutive leaves.
Also known as eau de cologne mint, orange mint combines the qualities of mint and citrus in its reddish-green leaves. An ornamental as well as intensely fragrant and flavorful mint, orange mint makes an unusual flavoring in party punches and pound cakes. Its purple and green mottled leaves liven up floral arrangements and potpourris.
The rounder shape, fuzzy texture and softer colors of apple mint's leaves set it apart from its dark-green and sharp-toothed minty brethren. Apple mint's light leaves and pale white or pink flowers give it a delicate look, which belies its rugged nature. Simmons suggests using the apple-flavored foliage to make candied leaves for decorating cakes. Try variegated apple mint for a more ornamental and even hardier version than the original.
Not technically part of the Mentha family, catmint or catnip (Nepata) has a pungent smell that ties it with the other mints. Like true mints, catmint is good at repelling garden pests—except cats, of course, who genuinely love it. Somewhat bushier and more ornamental than regular mints, catmint also features deep blue flowers.
Among the hundreds of mints to consider in the herb garden are pineapple mint, ginger mint, Bowle's mint and curly mint.