All in The Family
Similar to people, plants are often grouped into families. Also similar to people, these families are based on a combination of factors, but especially appearance and genetics.
Now, unless you happen to have a scanning electron microscope handy, you’re probably not going to be looking at plant dna. Physical characteristics are what most botanical-minded folks use to identify one family from another.
The Mint Family (or Lamiaceae if you want to be fancy)
Take away the mint family and your spice rack becomes a very boring place. Many of the most common cooking herbs are in this family. Not so coincidentally, they are also some of our most common medicinal herbs.
One of the best ways to tell if you’ve come across a member of the mint family is to follow your nose! The aromatic properties of this family are often very noticeable. If you crush a leaf and it gives off a slightly sweet, menthol-y type smell, chances are good that you have a mint.
Though often small, the flowers of mints have a few notable attributes as well. They have 5 petals, 2 on top, 3 on the bottom. These petals are united together at the base to form a little tube with an opening at the end that looks like a mouth. In fact, the formal name for the family, Lamiaceae, comes from the Greek lamia for ‘gaping mouth’.
Along with being aromatic, the leaves of most mints are opposite to each other. This means that they are arranged along the stem directly across from each other.
And speaking of the stem, this is another important identifying characteristic: the stems of most mints are square. As nature seems to abhor a straight line, this is pretty distinctive.
Classic Characteristics of the Mint Family
· Square stems
· Aromatic leaves
· Opposite leaves
· Irregular flowers, with 5 fused petals that look like a little mouth
A few things to think about here. Not everything that is aromatic is a mint. There are a number of plants out there (Bayberry, spicebush, sweetfern, etc.) that smell amazing, but are in totally different families.
On the flip side, not all mints are going to be aromatic. Skullcap and Motherwort are both common medicinal herbs that have very little in the way of scent, but are solidly in the mint family.
Also not everything that has a square stem is a mint. Nettles, for instance, also have square stems. But then, you’ll probably figure out pretty quickly if it’s nettles:)
That being said, these are the exceptions. If you find a plant with square stems and aromatic, opposite leaves, you are most likely looking at a mint of some kind.
Common Medicinal Herbs of the Mint Family
Basil Chia Horehound
Lavender Monarda Motherwort
Oregano Peppermint Prunella
Rosemary Sage Savory
Scutellaria Spearmint Thyme
So what do you do when you find a mint? Check out our upcoming blog on Medicinal Mints!
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