Lamiaceae, The Mint Family

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The mint family consists of many, if not most of the herbs we use on a regular basis which have mostly originated from the mediterranean where it can be quite hot and dry. They tend to be incredibly easy to cultivate by cutting and seed.

Mint, basil, rosemary, oregano, sage, lavender, marjoram and thyme are all members of this superfamily that we call the "mint" family.

Martha x piperita , a mint variety.    Image source

Martha x piperita, a mint variety. Image source

One of the best things about this dicot family is that they tend to have strong-smelling oils which can keep away pests while making them extra healthy for human consumption. These oils are stronger in some species than in others; westringias hardly smell at all compared to lavender.

Sometimes these strong-smelling and tasting oils can help with identification of plants within family as a whole, as well as of individual species within the family if your nose and taste buds are very refined.

It’s regarded as one of the safest plant families to eat, but there are a tiny few varieties out there that are toxic in high amounts. 

Description

Mint family members can be identified by their opposite leaves and square stems as well as their flowers.

Five petals are all fused together, with two at the top and three at the bottom. Flowers are bisexual and might be in an inflorescence or by themselves.

Species can be annual or perennial, and some varieties are technically perennial but are annualised in colder regions.

Flowers, Fruits & Leaves

Sepals: 5 united sepals.

Petals: 5 petals are fused together, with 2 lobes up and 3 lobes down.

Male: 4 stamens, with 2 long and 2 short.

Female: The style has forked stigmas.

Fruit & Seeds: 4-lobed seed capsule holding 4 "nutlets".

Leaves: Opposite each other and usually with visible web-like reticulate venation. 

Stems: Square or square-ish.

Noteworthy Types

Many, if not most, of our culinary herbs are included within the mint family including (but not limited to) oregano, thyme, basil, rosemary.

Close-up of a rosemary flower  Salvia rosmarinas .    Image source

Close-up of a rosemary flower Salvia rosmarinas. Image source

Like many members of the mint family, the aroma of lavender Lavandula spp is very distinct and can bring back childhood memories.

Close-up of a rosemary flower  Salvia rosmarinas .    Image source

Close-up of a rosemary flower Salvia rosmarinas. Image source

The family is made of more than just culinary herbs; there are also a number of woody shrubs in the family, such as members of the Aussie native Westringia genus which tend to have less of an aroma.

Close-up of a rosemary flower  Salvia rosmarinas .    Image source

Close-up of a rosemary flower Salvia rosmarinas. Image source

The largest genus in the mint family is the sage Salvia group which includes small flowering salvia shrubs, the sage herb and chia plants.

Salvia microphylla  'Hot Lips'. Notice how the petals are very much fused together; there is a double-lobed bottom petal, two smaller fused petals on its sides (appearing as lobes), plus two fused petals at the top.    Image source

Salvia microphylla 'Hot Lips'. Notice how the petals are very much fused together; there is a double-lobed bottom petal, two smaller fused petals on its sides (appearing as lobes), plus two fused petals at the top. Image source

Chia seeds come from Salvia hispanica, commonly called chia, native to southern Mexico and Guatemala.

Salvia hispanica  chia seeds.    Image source

Salvia hispanica chia seeds. Image source

Lamb’s ears Stachys byzantina are an ornamental ground covering plant with soft and fuzzy leaves and a flower spike.

Lamb's ears  Stachys byzantina .    Image source

Lamb's ears Stachys byzantina. Image source

Teak Tectona grandis is a rare example of a tree in the mint family. Wood from teak trees is known for its durability and is used in ship building.

Leaves and fruits of a teak tree  Tectona grandis .    Image source

Leaves and fruits of a teak tree Tectona grandis. Image source

Conclusion

The oils present have made herbs within the family integral to cooking around the world; try to name one culture that doesn’t use members of the family in cooking. 

They are one of the safest plant families to consume and you can eat a little bit of any species, though some are more palatable than others. There are just a small handful of varieties that are toxic in high amounts.

With that being said, you should always bring along an experienced forager when you pick wild foods, just because they’ve probably had experiences with that plant in the past. Picking wild foods is never actually safe.

If you haven’t already read my articles on plant identification and scientific names, I recommend reading those to get a broader picture of the topic. Alternatively, you can browse some of my other plant families, subfamilies and genera below.

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