Can I find any lasting solace in the color green?
—Naomi Shihab Nye, “Mint Snowball”
YOU CAN SMELL IT before you spot it, one of the first fragrant greetings of spring. Even if it looks like the stems have turned black and the leaves are brown and crispy during the dreary winter months, it’s one of the hardiest herbs in the country—its kelly green, aromatic leaves unfurl and sprout year after year. It’s known as the herb of hospitality, perfect for a friend with the blackest of thumbs. The roots are called “runners” for a reason—the stolons, their square and horizontal stems, are easy and eager to spread. Once you invite mint into your garden, it simply won’t leave.
If you pick the leaves just before it flowers, you’ll have mint in abundance from spring until the first frost. Some varieties will grow up to five feet tall in that time, whereas others will stay wee and fairylike, with leaves as tiny as a typed letter o. The flowers are labiate—the blossom has a distinctive upper and lower lip, parted just so, as if the bloom itself is exhaling the cool arctic blast we get if we pop a mint candy on our tongues.
In literature, mint is found in Shakespeare, Chaucer, and even the Bible. In Greek mythology, Minthe was a nymph who had an affair with Hades, and when Persephone discovered this, she trampled her to the ground, turning her into a plant. But the more she stomped, the more fragrant the air. Ancient Athenians used it to scent their arms, the smell a poignant remembrance of an embrace. Now it scents the air in hospitals: in waiting rooms, to keep awake those waiting for news of their loved ones, and in operating rooms, where a few drops of peppermint oil can keep corporeal smells at bay. And hot peppermint tea is still the go-to for sniffles and coughs.
In the language of flowers, mint means “you are refreshing.” Bees love the smell, but houseflies, mice, aphids, and mosquitoes all hate it. In the language of my youth, it will always remind me of Wrigley’s spearmint gum, the only kind my mother kept in her purse. Mint will always mean mother for me—a doctor who kept things spotless and clean, and whose white lab coat and fancy dresses always smelled of Elizabeth Taylor’s Passion perfume—and mint.
I can remember her passing me a stick of gum at the zoo or in a church pew before the choir started up their Sunday greeting. I haven’t seen her in months, and it turns out I can’t write about gardens and mint without thinking of her embrace. I can smell her hugging me if I close my eyes. She’s the one who taught me how to garden, how to get my hands in the soil after the first frost, and when to prune and pull up errant growth. No wonder I’m the runner now, stretching for her light, for her smell, for her reviving embrace.