Mint Family

The irregular and clustered flowers and long pairs of stamens make the giant hyssop easy to recognize even if you can’t smell the spicy aroma or see the square stalk.


Giant hyssop, sometimes called horsemint, lined sunny meadows on the trail to Aldous Lake near Kilgore last week. The purplish flowers were gathered in heavy tight clusters and standing atop square stems. Stamens jutted from the flower tubes and were clearly visible from a short distance. When I crushed a leaf and took a sniff, my nose was filled with a strong mint-like aroma. It was easy to determine that giant hyssop is a member of the mint family.

 Being able to identify plants and their uses is basic to becoming a naturalist. Finding the characteristics that group plants into families is the first step. The mint family is a great place to start because their characteristics are easily recognizable.

 Most of the approximately 7500 members of the mint family are fairly easy for even a beginning naturalist to identify to the family level.  Just remember three things:  

1—square stalks,

2—opposite  leaves that cling to the stem with each pair at right angles to the previous one and,

3—usually a strong but pleasant aroma. This isn’t a flower fragrance but rather, a scent that permeates the entire plant.

 There are a few other plants with square stalks such as the loosestrifes and verbena, but they are not aromatic. There are some very aromatic plants that are not mints. But put those three characteristics together and you are almost sure to have a mint.

 Follow your curiosity and take a closer look at the flowers for more clues about the mint family. Sepals are fused together, almost to the tops. The four to five petals are also fused into a tube with just the tips separate.  They are irregular (asymmetrical) flowers in that there are usually one to two petals on top and three on the bottom.  There are usually four stamens but two are often considerably longer than the others and protrude noticeably from the corolla.

 You are likely more familiar with the mint family than you might realize. Besides popular mints such as peppermint and spearmint, likely half the spices in your cabinet are from the mint family. For instance, the Italian favorites, basil, oregano and thyme all come from the mint family. In addition, rosemary, sage (culinary sage, not sagebrush), marjoram, lavender, hyssop and savory are on the mint family tree.

 Volatile oils within the plants are responsible for their culinary attraction and for the strong heady aroma. Within the genus, Mentha, menthol is the most common oil. These oils are often found throughout the entire plant, not just in the flowers.

 Mint family members are also common ornamental plants. For instance, salvia, coleus and ajuga  all add color and unique form to my gardens. Bee balm, with its lemony smell is also a garden favorite, one that I enjoy as a cut-flower as much for its scent as for the color and unique shape.

In such a large family, you would expect a wide variety of plant types and habitat preferences. However, most are perennials herbs and prefer moist areas with moderate sunlight.  Sunny creek-side  meadows are perfect.

 The mint family is easy to recognize and is a good place to start if you are new to botany and one every naturalist should know.

 

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