Spearmint is just one of more than 600 varieties of mint. It has a distinctive taste and is frequently used as a flavoring in food and scent in cosmetic products. Other varieties of mint, such as peppermint, have different flavors and scents. All mints thrive in similar growing conditions, though will be successful in almost all environments.
Mint is a perennial that grows rapidly and spreads quickly. The three main species of mints grown domestically are spearmint, peppermint and pennyroyal. Mint is prized for its flavor and scent, and its leaves are used as a flavoring in cooking, as a tea and in medicine. Use the leaves fresh or freeze or dry them for later use. The small, young leaves have the most flavor. Crushing mint leaves between your fingers releases their distinctive scent.
Spearmint (Mentha viridis), also known as garden mint, is the variety of mint most commonly grown. It has square stems that grow to 2 feet high. Its bright-green wrinkled leaves are spear-shaped and pointed, with smooth surfaces and serrated edges. It produces pinkish-lilac flowers attached to the upper leaves, arranged in rings and forming spikes. Another variety, Mentha cardiaca, is often sold as spearmint but is not the true variety. It has the same scent, but is smaller with darker leaves. Spearmint is often used to make mint tea and juleps.
Peppermint is a variety of mint also used frequently as a flavoring. Peppermint oil is used in making chocolates and candies as well as liqueurs and toothpaste. Ginger mint and pineapple mint have variegated leaves, and ginger mint has a particularly strong flavor. The tall lavender-colored flowers of licorice mint are suitable for drying. Chocolate mint has dark green leaves and a fragrance reminiscent of chocolate liqueur. Orange mint is one of the most strongly scented mints. Applemint's flavor of fresh apples is sweeter and milder than most other mints.
All mints thrive in rich, moist and slightly acidic soils and in partial shade or full sun. Mints are vigorous plants and will become invasive if not cut back or controlled. Plant mint in containers to keep it from spreading. To grow mint in your herb garden, bury the plant pot so that only 1 inch is above ground. Mint cross-pollinates easily, so keep space between different varieties of mint so that the flavors don't mix. Apply a slow-release fertilizer to mint at the start of the growing season, and water it regularly.