The fragrant mint family dominates the herb world

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

It is astounding that so many of our most popular and valuable herbs – including what I would consider the majority of the finest culinary herbs – are in the mint family.

They include basil, thyme, lavender, lemon balm, oregano, sweet marjoram, rosemary, sage, savory, summer savory, anise hyssop, and germander.

Some surprising members of the mint family aren't considered herbs at all: ajuga (the ground cover known as carpet bugleweed), bee balm, coleus, lamium (another ground cover), obedient plant (Physotegia virginiana), and salvia.

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Although these plants are tolerant of a wide range of environmental factors, for best results grow them in full sun. The soil should be well-draining and of average fertility, with a slightly alkaline pH. Seeds of some mint family herbs may be slow to germinate, but they all grow easily from stem or root cuttings.

Lavender. The history and lore of lavender has been entwined with mankind for thousands of years. Invading Roman soldiers probably brought lavender to the British Isles. It soon became associated with soaps, laundry washing, baths, perfumes, sachets, and potpourris, thus making life cleaner and definitely more fragrant.

Lavender also is useful in the kitchen – try it in vinegars, fruit, salads, and poultry dishes.

English lavender and its many varieties are most commonly grown in our American gardens. French, or saw-toothed, lavender is OK for USDA hardiness Zone 8 or so, but it's worth growing as a container plant in colder regions. Another tender lavender is the purple-flowered Spanish lavender.

Lemon balm. This herb was used by ancient Greeks and Romans and today is valued as a tea, garnish, perfume, and as a seasoning for veal and poultry. The botanical name for lemon balm is Melissa officinalis, which is appropriate for an herb that attracts bees (melissa means honeybee in Greek).

Mostly, lemon balm is grown for its refreshing fragrance. But it's also decorative in the garden. There are types with attractive variegated leaves and all kinds have white, pale yellow, or rose flowers toward the end of summer.

Lemon balm may flop over as it gets tall; pruning it regularly will encourage bushiness.

Basil. A classic herb, basil is essential in the kitchen. Gardeners of ancient Greece and Rome believed that basil would thrive only if the gardener cursed and shouted when he was sowing basil seeds – which gives a whole new meaning to the advice that you talk to your plants!

Basils range in height from dwarf to more than 3 feet. Since they're frost-sensitive, basils are most often grown as annuals. They come in several leaf colors (purple is popular at the moment) and a number of growth habits. Many are attractive enough to use as ornamentals in flower beds as well as in herb gardens.

Basil seeds sprout quickly in warm, sunny locations with rich, moist soil. Pinch off basil flower buds and one or more pairs of leaves regularly, both for use in salads and pestos and to make the plants bushier. Basil and tomatoes are a particularly tasty combination.

Oregano. Many gardeners grow oregano, expecting it to smell and taste like the commercial "oregano" used to flavor pizza and spaghetti sauces. In truth, commercial "oregano" consists of a variety of plants, including oregano, sweet marjoram, pennyroyal, and spearmint. Consider oregano a flavor rather than a specific plant. The herb that smells and tastes most like the pizza or spaghetti "oregano" is sweet marjoram.

Sweet marjoram. A tender perennial throughout much of the United States, it has stronger flavor and fragrance if grown in fertile soil (unlike most herbs, which are grown in average to slightly poor soil conditions). In medieval times, marjoram's fragrance was said to revive person's spirits; therefore this herb came to symbolize both happiness and protection.

Pinch it back to encourage bushiness, then enjoy cooking with the clippings. The small leaves are a valuable seasoning to many dishes from meats to soups to stuffings.

Rosemary. Native to Mediterranean regions, where it grows on rocky hillsides, rosemary has a long history. The single species, a cold-sensitive bushy evergreen, has been developed into a number of excellent varieties. It has a reputation as the herb of remembrance and friendship.

The botanic name is from the Latin ros marinus, meaning dew of the sea. Rosemary is one of the most flavorful and aromatic herbs of the mint family.

Gardeners in colder climates often keep rosemary plants in containers all year long, putting them outdoors only during warm months.

As a culinary herb, rosemary – fresh or dried – will flavor vinegars, sauces, meats, soups, and stews. It has a strong flavor – use it sparingly.

Salvia. This genus includes herbal sages as well as many spectacular garden flowers.

As a culinary herb, sage is the Thanksgiving herb – a necessity for turkey dressing – a must for herb gardens and a favorite of cooks everywhere. It also makes great herbal teas, sausage flavorings, and garnishes for mixed dishes and salads.

Garden sage is a shrubby perennial with gray-green leaves that have a pebbly, lizard-skin surface. Although sage is evergreen where winters are mild, it dies back to the ground in severe cold. The variegated forms are less hardy and may not always return after a cold winter. Lilac-blue whorls of flowers appear in early to midsummer.

Pineapple sage, a frost-tender, shrubby, four-foot plant from Mexico is grown as an annual in Northern gardens. The bright-green leaves have a sweet pineapple flavor and aroma. Grow the plant in a container on a patio and place an oscillating fan behind it to get full benefit of the delightful fragrance.

Pineapple sage's late-summer, red flowers are eye-catching favorites of hummingbirds.

Savory. The two major herbs of this genus are summer savory and winter savory, both natives of Southern Europe that have been used for more than 2,000 years. The two savories, both about a foot tall, have the same wonderful fragrance and a somewhat similar taste, reminiscent of marjoram and thyme. Summer savory is a bit milder, winter savory more peppery.

Summer savory, an annual, has smooth, narrow, gray-green leaves and small, sparse white or lilac flowers that appear from midsummer to frost. Winter savory is a shrubby somewhat-evergreen perennial.

Thyme. Thyme has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years, was grown in Sumaria three milleniums before the time of Jesus.

Thyme comes in many forms and flavors. Thymes may be dwarf or standard in size (about 6 inches tall), prostrate or erect, plain or variegated, hairy or smooth. Common or garden thyme – with its whorls of summer flowers of lilac, white, or pale purple – is the most used culinary thyme. An essential herb in the French bouquet garni, it is also an important ingredient in stews, and vegetable dishes.

Although some of the thymes lack significant taste, the best loved varieties are full of flavor.

In taste and fragrance, thymes range all the way from the traditional slightly peppery thyme taste to lemon to lavender to coconut. Several of these are culinary favorites of good cooks everywhere.

The thymes have leaves that are oval to rounded, without notching or scalloping. Because their stems tend to get woody as they age, it is a good idea to restart thymes every three to four years.

Common thyme may be called English thyme or French thyme and there are several forms called lemon thyme that truly do not look much alike. The best thing to do is to find the thymes that you like, then maintain them through division or cuttings.

The number of herbs in the mint family is extraordinary. The true mints would be enough to brag about, but add the other marvelous herbs, and this becomes one of the most valuable plant families in cultivation.

• Barbara Perry Lawton is the author of a new reference book on the mint family: 'Mints' (Timber Press, $27.95).

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