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Garden Mints and Their Wild Relatives.

Updated on September 30, 2015

Young growth of mint in a flower pot.

Mint is a popular cottage garden plant. Photograph by D.A.L.
Mint is a popular cottage garden plant. Photograph by D.A.L.

Notes from a Lancashire Countryman.

Most gardeners will be familiar with the garden mints. A commonly grown species is Mentha spicata-the spearmint. This is an introduced species from Mediterranean countries.Evidence reveals that the Romans brought the species to our shores where it has been cultivated ever since.

It is a pleasing experience to go out into the garden to pick fresh mint when it is required for culinary purposes or to make into a sauce. The garden mint Mentha viridis is a cultivated variety of horse mint Mentha sylvestris and is famed for its invasive root system which creep rapidly to colonise the garden, thus is better grown in pots, tubs or some other form of restraintment.

In this hub we shall explore the wild relatives of the mint some of which will be less familiar to most people. The mint family Lamiaceae {Labiatae} is a large family with a diverse range of species.I will start with two species that can be readily identified as being part of this family by their scent alone. The corn mint Mentha arvensis, is a perennial that creeps freely.

Corn mint

Indivdual flowers of the corn mint form dense rings.Photograph by D.A.L.
Indivdual flowers of the corn mint form dense rings.Photograph by D.A.L.

It is a branched downy plant, the square stems lie close to the ground. They send up flowering stems some 6-12 inches high {12-30cm}. The stems are adorned with foliage arranged in opposite pairs, stalked and toothed along the margins. The upper leaves are smaller than the lower ones. the tiny flowers are arranged in whorls {rings} in their axils. They are of a delicate pale lilac or blue colour. They are clustered so densely that the whorls become a dominant feature despite the diminutive size of the individual  flowers. They may be encountered in flower during July until September.  They are found in meadow land and corn fields. It is a plant that in common with all our native mints , varies greatly, some being bigger than others. The strong smell of mint becomes evident when the leaves are crushed or bruised in any way. I find the taste of this species to be very strong even over powering.

Water mint has a very strong smell and flavour.

Water mint .Photograph by D.A.L.
Water mint .Photograph by D.A.L.

Another strong scented plant is the water mint Mentha Aquatica. The scent of this plant can be detected without the need of crushing the foliage. This species can attain the height of up to 3 feet but often less. The flowers are arranged like the previous species in whorls arranged in tiers the protruding stamens give the whorls a fluffy appearance. they are of a lilac pink colour.

As its common name suggests they are found by lake sides around ponds and in fresh water marshes. They may be found in flower from July until September. They are capable of forming dense masses in favourable circumstances.

Now to those relatives that lack the smell of mint but retain many of the features that are common to the family. When out on a countryside stroll I often come upon the next subject the selfheal,Prunella vulgaris. It delights to dwell in woodland clearings and among scrub. In grassy places such as on lawns and verges selfheal may well form dense patches.  In my opinion it is a simple but beautiful plant. The flower heads are distinctly oblong composed of compacted individual purple- blue flowers. Each has a hooded upper lip. There are dark coloured bracts below each flower. This perennial plant has square stems that has three or four pairs of opposite leaves which are oval to lance shaped and are only lightly toothed. They are to be found in flower from June until November.

Selfheal belongs to the mint family

Selfheal. Photograph by D.A.L.
Selfheal. Photograph by D.A.L.

The plant has long been used in herbal medicine, as its common name suggests, it was extensively used as a domestic remedy for all manner of afflictions. Culpeper in his herbal states "he needeth no physician or surgeon who has selfheal to heal himself". However, many of its alleged virtues are now regarded as dubious in these more enlightened times. An infusion of the herbs still used as a gargle to treat sore throats. 

Bugle,Ajuga reptens is another member of the family that may often be chosen by gardeners as a ground cover in damp shady places where they send up numerous stems of bluish purple flowers. They are sold as Ajuga. They are just as likely to be encountered in damp woodland, hedge bottom and on shady grassland.

Ajuga or Bugle

Ajuga in flower. Photograph by D.A.L.
Ajuga in flower. Photograph by D.A.L. | Source

Hedge woundwort Stachys sylvatica is another common plant that enjoys shady aspects. Its nettle like foliage allow it to bled in where nettles grow affording it some protection. However, when the flowers appear it is evidently a member of the mint family having hooded flowers and square stems.

The foliage is soft to touch being downy. Should you be inclined to crush the foliage anticipating the familiar odour of mint you are in for a disappointment for the plant has a pungent smell one is unlikely to forget.

Top. Components of the Hedge woundwort. Bottom. Hedge woundwort when the flowers have faded

Components of the hedge woundwort.
Components of the hedge woundwort.
Hedge woundwort the bottom flowers of the spike have fallen. Photograph by D.A.L.
Hedge woundwort the bottom flowers of the spike have fallen. Photograph by D.A.L.

As its common name suggests the plant was used for healing wounds, with good effect. Science has proved that the plant contains natural healing properties. I have used the foliage of this species in its fresh state, placed over a cut and held in place by a dressing, quickly cleans and heals the wound. 

Betony Stachys officinalis, like the selfheal was much sought after as a medicinal herb. The plant was familiar to the Greeks who extolled its virtues. An old Italian proverb states that if you are poor and ill, "sell your coat and by betony".

Betony is another member of the mint family

Betony, photograph by D.A.L.
Betony, photograph by D.A.L.

Betony was also planted around monasteries for medicinal purposes. Today it is used in the form of an infusion for intestinal problems, against diarrhoea and has a gargle. This plant is a perennial that grows to the height of 70cm {two and a half feet} with square furrowed stalks. The foliage is stalked and narrowly oval, coarsely toothed with a heart shaped base. Stem leaves are in opposite pairs although they are few in number.

The flowers are in whorls {rings} and arranged in terminal spikes. The flowers are pinkish purple and two lipped. In between the flowers are stalkless leaves of an oblong shape. It was used medicinally for all manner of ailments particularly those of the head, and its nervine properties and tonic qualities are acknowledged by modern day science. The dried herb was once smoked as a tobacco mixed with eyebright and colt's foot for relieving headaches. A pinch of the powdered herb was said to provoke violent sneezing thus clearing the head.

The Marsh woundwort Stachys palustris is a handsome member of the mint family and may be encountered in dam meadows, by th sides of rivers and along ditches. It is another plant of perennial rootstock which has a creeping habit.

Marsh woundwort . Stachys Palustris

Marsh woundwort flower spike.Photograph by D.A.L.
Marsh woundwort flower spike.Photograph by D.A.L.

The stems that arise from the root stock are stout and square and attain the height of 60-90cm {two to three feet}.The stems have many pairs of rather elongated leaves tapering to a point and usually clasping the stem. The leaves are above the previous pairs point in the opposite direction as do the pair below. The whole plant is hairy.

This species is also well documented as being a medicinal healing plant. There is a well known story attached to this herb which led to its alternative country name of "Clown's woundwort".John Gerard {famed for his herbals}, was a physician of the 16th century in the days when only the rich could afford such services. He was travelling when he happened upon a farm labourer who had just received a nasty gash to his leg while working. Gerard offered to attend the wound for free { a very generous offer} . To his amazement the labourer said he would heal the wound himself using marsh woundwort.  Gerard stated that this was a "clownish answer" A week later on his return journey he called on the labourer and to his amazement the wound had already knitted together and was clean . Using conventional herbs it would have taken at least 40 days to reach the appropriate stage. From then onwards Gerard used the herb to heal wounds, however, the name clown's woundwort stuck and has been used ever since.

Foliage and flowers of the Marsh woundwort.

Note how the foliage  is arranged in pairs that point in a different direction from the leaves above and the leaves below. Photograph by D.A.L.
Note how the foliage is arranged in pairs that point in a different direction from the leaves above and the leaves below. Photograph by D.A.L.

In the next hub in this series I will explore the dead nettles and horehounds.


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    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Tank you to everyone that have left a comment on GARDEN MINTS AND THEIR WILD RELATIVES, They are appreciated.

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Darski be in touch soon, your welcome for the mint.

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 

      9 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      Hi my dearest friend, I am so happy to hear from must write to me and let me know how life is going...I miss our long walks...Love back to you, thanks for the mint...

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Darski,Hi, Nice to hear from you. Thank you for the visit and for your usual kind comments. Hope all is going well for you my friend. Love and best wishes.

    • Darlene Sabella profile image

      Darlene Sabella 

      9 years ago from Hello, my name is Toast and Jam, I live in the forest with my dog named Sam ...

      Hello today my dear dear friend I miss you and reading your well informed hubs, I just planted mint in my flower garden before I left on this trip, I had no idea it would take over the area, however I love the smell when it rains, a little like a sage bush that I so enjoy. Miss you, excellent hub...beautiful, awesome, useful and rate up

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      Hi SilverGenes. glad you enjoyed it. Thank you for visiting and for leaving your usual kind comments. Best wishes.

      B, thought you might find something here. Thank you for visiting again and for your appreciated comments.L. best wishes.

      equealla, hi, Ajuga produce these beautiful flower spikes early in the season and they are always a treat to encounter. Best wishes.

    • equealla profile image


      9 years ago from Pretoria, South Africa

      What beautiful flowers on the Ajuga. The wonder of nature you shared with us in such informative way. Thank you for that.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      hi just received an email to say this is a new hub...... already used the picture of the purple flowers in my latest little work of art......... forgot to say lovely hub, but here i am back to thank you once again for sharing your insight on all things herbal, wild and wonderful.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      Thank you, D.A.L. Your hubs are always so refreshing in many ways. I also enjoyed the clown's woundwort story :)

    • D.A.L. profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from Lancashire north west England

      drbj, your welcome, thank for visiting and for leaving your commnet. Many plants have interesting stories to them, watch this space.Best wishes.

      jandee, thank you too, for visiting. Cat mint is well known for its scent. Many members of this family have welcoming scents. Best wishes.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      hello D.A.L,Reminds me of the lovely smell of tomatoes when picking fresh ones, same as mint,a memory comes back to me of my mother telling me about cat-mint she was in the garden from sunrise to end of day and the aroma those lovely plants were mixed with aviation fuel(Ringway airport)jandee

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 

      9 years ago from south Florida

      Thanks, DAL, for the interesting anecdote about clown's woundwort. There always seems to be something to learn from your hubs.


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