The Mint Conundrum

For all its easy-growing glory, mint is a complicated plant from an identification perspective.

Mint is the typical gateway herb for new gardeners. It is incredibly easy to grow, smells glorious, and has many culinary uses. Of course, it is also an AGGRESSIVE spreader, so we beg you, grow it in a pot. We love mint and like most, have been growing it for our entire gardening lives.

But there is something you may have noticed if you like to grow a wide variety of mints – some of them are really hard to distinguish from others. Most specifically we are talking about mojito mint and spearmint, and peppermint and chocolate mint.

This article from Richters Herbs (THE premier herb people in Canada, perhaps North America), describes some of the problems with all the different strains of mint out there. Essentially, if you want to grow a “true” type of mint, you had better get a plant from a reputable supplier and vegetatively propagate it. They claim that mint grown from seed is unlikely to have the expected essential oil content, and may even smell “rank.”

We have grown what we believed to be spearmint from three different sources: a local Saskatoon greenhouse, seeds from OSC, and supposed “true” spearmint plants we ordered from Richters. We also have been propagating mojito mint, purchased from the same local greenhouse as the spearmint. Our findings:

  • The mojito and spearmint from the local greenhouse are indistinguishable
  • The “true” spearmint from Richters looks and smells very different from the locally purchased spearmint (and is a much more tender plant)
  • The spearmint from OSC seed is similar to the true spearmint from Richters (as expected because it is the same botanical species); it is not strongly fragrant but definitely does not smell bad or rank
One of these things is not like the others…
Left – mojito mint from local greenhouse. Middle – seeded spearmint. Right – spearmint from local greenhouse. Very obvious that the seeded spearmint is a different plant altogether!

If we consider Richters to be our trusted source on botanically identifying mint, mojito mint and true spearmint should definitely not be nearly identical plants, as they are botanically not even the same species (mojito mint is Mentha x villosa and spearmint is Mentha spicata). However, we suspect that when you buy either spearmint or mojito mint at most greenhouses, you are actually buying “improved spearmint” (Mentha spicata ‘Kentucky Colonel’), supposedly a hybrid of spearmint and apple mint (though confusion abounds because the botanical name does not suggest a hybrid), which Richters claims is what was widely used in mojitos prior to their obtaining “true” mojito mint from Cuba. Our best guess is that the mojito mint (and greenhouse-originated spearmint) we are selling is, botanically, improved spearmint. Which is for all intents and purposes an excellent mint to grow! It’s just not “true” spearmint.

Peppermint and chocolate mint are thankfully a little less complicated. They are botanically the exact same plant (Mentha x piperita piperita), and neither will grow true from seed because peppermint is a sterile hybrid (that’s what the “x” in the botanical name means). Chocolate mint continues to be propagated from a strain that at one point, a plant breeder believed to smell chocolatey. The real question is – does it? Or is it just our minds playing tricks because we so badly want chocolate mint? We purchased our peppermint from a local greenhouse, and our chocolate mint from Richters, who claim that theirs is the OG chocolate mint (although even they are a bit wary of the chocolate claims). To be honest, we aren’t sure we can tell the difference, but perhaps our senses of smell are always on overload due to being constantly bombarded with the fragrances of 40+ other herbs.

So, there you have our hard-hitting investigative report on mint. Now you probably want to know what this means for you as customers. You need to be comfortable with your purchase and we don’t want you to think we are trying to pass off identical plants as two distinct types of mint – it’s important for us to be transparent about it.

On the one hand, in our opinion it’s kind of impossible to ever have too much mint, because as we said earlier – we love mint! It’s an awesome plant to grow. It smells great, is attractive, and grows pretty much anywhere. We certainly won’t stop you from buying multiple mint plants to compare and contrast and do some scientific research of your own (let us know how many mojitos one needs to drink to obtain the correct sample size).

On the other hand, if you are concerned or simply interested to know the exact origin of the plant you’re getting, please ask us. If you want a specific type of spearmint when purchasing, let us know – we can tell the difference!

Even if you’re not concerned and just want to get your hands on any mint you can, we think this is super interesting (and honestly, also frustrating as producers who are committed to proper plant identification) and wanted to share it. Regardless of what type of mint you buy from us you can rest assured it will be healthy and grown with care, ready to provide you with many happy hours of summer plant therapy! And remember – grow it in a pot!

Regardless of what mint this was botanically, it was delicious steeped with a sprig of lavender!

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