Many are surprised that wild mint is a native plant in our province
The roots of many British Columbians reach back generations to Europe, from where our ancestors brought over a number of traditionally used plants. Many of these plants come from the mint family, Lamiaceae, including thyme (Thymus), lavender (Lavandula), lemon balm (Melissa officinalis), and of course, mint (Mentha) itself. But you may be surprised to learn that our province has actually long been home to an easy-to-grow and useful native mint called simply wild mint or Canada mint, Mentha arvensis.
Meet, Canada mint
Wild mint is a 15- to 50-centimetre-tall perennial plant that grows from a mass of creeping root-stems called rhizomes, which are usually dispersed on or just below the soil surface. The true roots are easy to see reaching into the earth from the nodes. A fragment of rhizome with a single growing point with roots and stem or scarcely the tiniest sign of leaves in the bud is usually enough to start a new plant.
Often the first sign that you have encountered mint in the wild is the wonderful aroma from the crushed or bruised leaves. The leaves are lance- to egg-shaped with saw-like teeth lining the margin. Leaves range from one to eight centimetres long and are arranged in the fashion typical for the mint family—that is, in pairs opposite each other, but with each pair alternating at right angles with the pair above and below. This leaf-arrangement pattern occurs because most plants in the mint family have a distinctive four-angled stem. In the case of wild mint, the stem is hairy, but it's hairless on other scented mints, notably peppermint (Mentha x piperita), which has escaped from cultivation at several sites in southwestern B.C. Unlike the flowers of spearmint (Mentha spicata) and peppermint, which crowd the tips of the stems, those of wild mint form clusters where the leaves meet the stem. The small flowers range from an attractive full-pink hue through pale-purple to white. To my eye the pink ones have the most ornamental value, but some of the purplish forms are very attractive, too. Each blossom consists of a tube that opens into four to five petal lobes. The throat of the floral tube is hairy, and the flower sits within a calyx tube of five fused sepals. Open the flower, examine it carefully and you will find four stamens attached just at the base of the petal lobes. A single pistil has a long style that positions the stigma near the level of the pollen-bearing anthers. Wild mint flowers from late spring well into summer.
Where can you find wild mint?
Wild mint is exceptionally hardy, and you will find it growing throughout all of British Columbia. Indeed, you may encounter it right across Canada, even in our northern territories and right around the globe through Europe and northern Asia. Southward it ranges into California and the northern U.S. states. Wild mint is a plant of moist to wet sites. People often first experience mint along lake or stream shores, where it is usually visible, but it also lurks at the edges of marshes, in moist meadows and even open thickets. The first sign of it in these habitats is the wonderful smell released as you trod upon the plant.
Growing wild mint
Growing wild mint is a cinch, provided you have a damp soil with some organic matter. The easiest way to move it to your garden is by transplanting a rooted segment of rhizome. Start the plant in a moist shaded spot until it gets well established then transplant parts of the clump to their final home. Wild mint will also root from stem cuttings. The nutlets (seeds) germinate well from a late-winter or spring sowing, but the type of scent and intensity of fragrance vary widely from plant to plant, so it's best to propagate the form you like by rhizome fragment, clump division or cutting. Wonderfully scented forms of wild mint are widely available in garden centres. A plant with such a strong fragrance could hardly be overlooked by First Nations groups throughout B.C. and Canada, who found several uses for wild mint. Most First Nations from the Nuxalk (Bella Coola) on the coast to the Okanagan, and the Ktunaxa (Cranbrook area) in the interior made tea by steeping fresh or dried leaves in hot water. This strong brew was drunk to relieve many health complaints, ranging from stomach troubles, coughs and colds to fever. Further east, the Cree chewed mint leaves to cure hiccups and calm the giddiness of young children. Powdered leaves were sprinkled by the Ktunaxa to flavour meat, especially if it was fatty. So why not return to your roots and try some mint in your own garden, but don't stop at planting only those familiar ones of European origin. Add some wild mint and enjoy a bit of Native Canadian heritage, too. The following plants are hardy to the zone number indicated: • Melissa officinalis - zone 4 • Mentha arvensis - zone 1 • Mentha x piperita - zone 3 • Mentha spicata - zone 4