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In mint condition

26 July 2013

iStock

AS I write this, the temperature in the shade is 28°C. I began the day with a refreshing cup of tea from the Tregothnan estate, near Truro. My thoughts turned to grow-your-own tea. Any garden in which camellias thrive with warmth, moisture, and no extremes of temperature can support Camellia sinensis, the tea bush. Patience is needed, however; it will be at least five years before the shoot tips can be harvested in spring to brew a green tea, and black tea requires a slow drying and fermentation process.

Mint is a much simpler option. Most gardens have a patch of mint somewhere. I can vividly remember being sent out to gather the leaves, as a child, for the lamb roast on a Sunday. I would stir the chopped leaves with vinegar and sugar, and inhale the pungent aroma.

The botanical name for mints, Mentha, is derived from Greek mythology. Hades, the god of the underworld, fell for the charms of the water nymph Minthe. Hades's wife and queen, Persephone, metamorphosed the nymph into the plant Mentha in a fit of jealousy.

A neglected garden is liable to have a large patch, as the common species Mentha spicata (spearmint or garden mint) and Mentha x piperita (peppermint) spread vigorously via rhizomes. In the Bible, a mint, Mentha longifolia (horsemint), is one of the tithing herbs, which Jesus dismisses as being too easily acquired to have real value.

Mint will cope with neglect, but it is worth taking care to grow it well. The healthiest and most productive plants are those given free rein in rich well-drained soil in a sunny spot. Tidy gardeners may favour container culture, in which case-dividing and repotting each autumn is needed to maintain the plant's vigour.

A halfway house is to plant it in a container (anything will do, as long as it has drainage holes at the base), and sink it into a border up to its rim. Again, replanting will be needed, but only every two to three years if the vessel is large.

Spearmint and peppermint are fine for a brew-up. Mentha suaveolens, or apple mint, is lovely, too. Simply tear a few leaves into a cup, and top up with just-boiled water. A glass teapot infuser turns it into more of an occasion. Mint tea can be left to cool (the infused leaves removed), and served with ice, a dash of lime juice, sugar if desired, and perhaps a few borage flowers.

A herbal-tea connoisseur influenced by the cooling tisanes served in North Africa would probably turn to Mentha spicata var. crispa "Morrocan" (Moroccan mint). Perhaps the crème de la crème in the mint-for-tea world is Mentha suaveolens subsp. timija (Atlas Mountain mint).

Mint plants add to a garden's bio-diversity. When in flower, besides attracting butterflies, mint is favoured by hoverflies and lacewings, both of whose larvae are aphid predators. Edulis nursery supplies a wide range of mints (www.edulis.co.uk); and Penborn Goat Farm holds the National Collection of Mentha (www.penborngoats.com/plantsforsale.htm).

Raise your glasses for mint, please.

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