Lamiaceae: The Mint Family
We Are Family: Trying to classify life, here within the vast kingdom of plants, into distinct categories has been going on for centuries. Constant adjustment of one plant or another moving between categories has been going on since the beginning of taxonomy, and indeed right to this day because there are simply no hard rules for what belongs in a plant family. Often rankings are made because certain plants can hybridize with others (spearmint + water mint = peppermint, for example) or because they have similar physical systems (they reproduce the same way for example), but again there are no overarching rules. Often the names of families come from a prominent genus in the family, but Lamiaceae does not refer to mints, even though the family is commonly called the mint family.
Meet the Lamiaceae: Lamium in Latin historically refers to “nettle” plants, that is, herbaceous plants with jagged leaves or stinging hairs (however, many of the more dangerous modern-day nettles are in the Urticacae family). The Lamiaceae family of plants has over 200 genera and over 7,000 species in it. Most of the plants in the family are perennial or annual aromatic herbs with accessible essential oils. Many Lamiaceae members are widely cultivated, not only because of their fragrance, but also their ease of cultivation, since many can be reliably reproduced by stem cutting.
All plants in the mint family have three features in common:
- They have square stems, if you roll the stem between your fingers you will feel the four sides.
- They have opposite leaves, each pair of leaves emerges from the same spot on the stem, on opposite sides. They are most often sawtooth-looking leaves.
- They are “lipped” flowers that appear in clusters—the blossoms are shaped like open mouths, the upper and lower lips of varying sizes, depending on the species.
- Most, but not all, of the plants in the mint family are aromatic because of the oils they often contain, which often give them strong, pleasant smell, and can contribute to the plant’s medicinal properties.
An unusually large portion of the Lamiaceae family members have edible leaves, decorative foliage, fragrant oils or beneficial seeds for mankind to use. The family contains well-known culinary and medicinal herbs, including:
Basil – Lamiaceae
Mint – Lamiaceae mentha piperita (peppermint)
Rosemary – Lamiaceae
Sage – Lamiaceae Salvia officinalis (garden sage)
Savory – Lamiaceae
Marjoram – Lamiaceae
Oregano – Lamiaceae
Thyme – Lamiaceae
Lavender – Lamiaceae
The list above would serve very well as a list of basic herbs for any beginner to grow. All have prominent oils, fragrance and great utility for human beings, helping to nourish and heal us, to kill microbes to provide life-supporting antioxidants, to preserve our meats and add a pleasing flavor to our stews. To see creation itself providing these benefits to mankind for centuries is, of course, to see a plan and not random chance, the care of a Creator and not a series of sterile and separate accidents. Mankind did not make modern medicine out of thin air, it is rather one point on a long path we have been on for a long time. A path that was started centuries ago by those who noticed and appreciated what was around them. One of the greater gifts along the way was the life-sustaining plants of the mint family.
For more see the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on Lamiaceae.
Featured Picture: Lamium purpureum, red deadnettle, by , own work, found at Wikimedia Commons. Featured here because historically deadnettle is the plant the Lamiaceae family is actually most named after, though it is commonly referred to as the mint family.