Helen Miranda Wilson grows five kinds of mint and each one has a story. The first comes from her mother’s close friend Nina Chavchavadze, who moved a piece of the plant from her garden in South Wellfleet to Helen’s family property in 1946.
“This mint, that my mother got in the 40s, that’s been growing here ever since, is my go-to eating mint,” she told me. “It’s not spearmint, it’s not peppermint. It’s just this kind of straight-up mint taste that I would use in a salad. I guess you’d use it in a mint julep, if that’s what you did. But it’s robust - I weed it. In other words, I let it spread. I give it rich areas to grow where it will get water. I find that when it doesn’t have water and good soil, mint has this kind of slightly acrid, unpleasant taste.”
Helen treats her mints well. Unlike many gardeners, who relegate mints to pots or scattered patches because it can take over, Helen keeps most of her mint in the main garden.
“This is Melissa, and that also is doing very well,” she said with a gesture, continuing our tour. “Melissa does well anywhere.”
Melissa is short for Melissa officinialis, also known as lemon balm or balm mint. It’s got a light green stem and is native to Europe, but it’s also naturalized here.
“You use it in teas,” Wilson explained. “And I also use it in salads. The way I use mints in salads is, I make the dressing, and then I get a good sprig of it. I take the leaves off, and I snip the mint in little ribbons with a scissor and toss it in, so that you don’t get large mint leaf by itself, you get these little bursts of flavor.”
Melissa has a lemony flavor, and is also used in ice cream or fish dishes. It’s similar to another mint Helen is replanting this spring.
“I used to have an extraordinary orange mint that had a flavor that was so delicate and so floral and slightly citrusy that I liked to use it in smoothies. I’d put it in the blender with yogurt and raspberries and stuff. And it would add to it in an incredible way,” she said.
Orange mint is also known as Bergamot mint, or mentha citrata. It has the dark almost purple stem that’s characteristic of peppermint, and in the fall the leaves are tinged a beautiful reddish purple. Next, Helen walked me over to a bushy patch of mint that she says came from behind the Wellfleet Historical Society.
“I went over there one day - I wasn’t, strictly speaking, trespassing - to try to find someone who I thought was working in there. They weren’t there, and I had gone around the back, and there was a huge patch of mint gone wild. So I just pulled a little sprig. I think that’s ok!”
The mint from the historical society is a spearmint. Helen likes to dry it and use it in middle eastern dishes, and she says it’s also good in salads or a cocktail.
“Or mint sauce,” she said. “Mint sauce with lamb, with fresh mint is classic. It’s really good.”
How do you make a fresh mint sauce?
Helen Wilson uses good red wine vinegar, sugar, and then snips the mint in.
The fresh mint sauce should sit for about an hour, just before you’re ready to eat.
For mint jelly, Helen makes apple jelly to give the sauce sweetness and pectin, and then adds mint for flavor at the very end.
Her last variety of homegrown mint is a classic peppermint. It’s escaped from the main garden and isn’t doing very well—Helen says her plant triage list is miles long—but it still has that amazing peppermint smell.
“This is the one remaining sprig of my peppermint, my very potent peppermint. See the dark stem? Some people call it chocolate mint,” she said.
There are a lot more than five varieties of mint—as many as twenty edible varieties have been identified, and Helen Miranda Wilson is also growing plants in the mint family like hyssop, which is medicinal, and catnip.