The leaf plant mint is widely known and used as a culinary and medicinal herb. Mint is good for digestion, is anti-inflammatory, and even antiseptic. It is ingested in various forms, from chocolate treats to toothpaste. A handful of garden-fresh mint steeped in a glass teapot gives off a fresh aroma and is a delicious herbal tea.
Many people can tell the importance of having a mint leaf in a mojito. And recognize a mint leaf in a bowl of fresh strawberries or a mint leaf floating alongside a slice of lemon in a tall glass of sparkling water. But some lookalikes don’t appeal to taste. Mint is both a sensation and a taste, with mint as Mentha and the spear- and peppermint varieties standing out.
Mint is scientifically known as Mentha, a variety-dense plant genus of the Lamiaceae family. Many mint species, even hybrids, are cultivated or grow feral in wetlands worldwide. Experienced growers know their mints, but this might be a little more difficult for the untrained eye scavenging for edible herbs.
Mint is versatile and a delicious accompaniment to fruit, lamb, and Mediterranean fish dishes, and used in ice cream and candy. But can you tell mint apart from its lookalikes?
1. Nettles (Urtica dioica)
Make sure you know your mint from your nettle. If you are looking for a handful of mint leaves, it can be tricky as there are dozens of varieties in the first place. And secondly, there are mint lookalikes that you’d rather not touch. One such is the stinging nettle’s prickly leaves. The leaves have chemicals like formic acid and histamine that cause rashes and redness.
The stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) can easily be mistaken for mint. The nettle has a similar leaf look to that of mint. You can mistake a nettle for a mint at a quick glance, especially for the untrained eye. The nettle leaves are large and look like healthy large-leafed mint. The leaves on both plants are pointed, lance-like, and have serrated or rough edges.
The outward shape of the leaves is paired. The leaves grow on opposite sides of each other on both the mint and the stringing nettle. And you’ll know it’s a nettle you pick, not only because of the absence of the mint fragrance but because of the bristly hairs on the plant’s leaves that cause an instant rash.
The stinging nettle has a single stem, unlike the mint plant’s branched ones. The nettles’ single stem height ranges from a foot off the ground to almost 9 feet high. Mint grows as low as inches and can stand up to 4 feet tall. And it’s because of this height that you can mistake nettles for mint. But the branched stems of mint are totally unlike that of nettle.
You can tell a stinging nettle from a mint through its plant stems. Typically, the mint’s erect and branched stems stand out. But more so are mint’s distinctively square stems. The square stems are characteristic of at least 3500 different mints in the Lamiaceae family. The square stems are a plant gene that isn’t just common to the Lamiaceae (mint) family.
Another way to tell a nettle from a mint is through its flowers. A mint looks pretty scraggly when flowering, as most of the plant energy supports the growth of the flowers. The mint’s flowers are purple and white and sit above the foliage. Whereas the stinging nettle’s flowers are light green and tangled looking.
2. Hemp Nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit)
Interestingly, the Hemp Nettle (Galeopsis tetrahit), which one thinks should be a nettle, is actually classified in the Mint or Lamiaceae family. The Hemp nettle has characteristics of the Mint family plants and looks like the mint. Hemp nettle leaves are the closest to mint, with oval-like shapes and the mint’s lance-shaped point.
Hemp nettle is part of the Lamiaceae family, which is the mint family rather than the Urticaceae. Hemp nettle is on the cusp of mint and nettle through the naming and classification. Mints and nettles are also often confused through their leaves. Hemp nettle doesn’t have a sting in its leaves, and its shape is like mint leaves.
Hemp nettle grows the height of mint and has bristly (non-stinging) hairs on its stems and leaves that won’t cause a rash when touched. The hemp plant grows upright like mint with its lance-like leaves.
You can tell a hemp nettle and a mint apart by their flowers. Hemp nettles have pink, white, and variegated flowers, which aren’t like mint’s whitish purplish ones. But what both have in common is the square stems and serrated-edged leaves.
Since ancient Greek times, mint has been a sought-after treatment for digestive ailments. So, considering the likenesses between Mint and Hemp nettle, the former might be an invasive garden spreader. Still, the latter is a noxious weed in parts of North America.
A key difference is that mint’s so-called ‘flavor halo’ includes biases towards health, especially when mint is added to foods and drinks.
3. Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis) is a perennial often grown as a herbaceous border. Lemon balm stands out for its lemon scent though it is part of the mint (Lamiaceae) family. Lemon balm is also of the mint family and grows naturally in Europe, along the Mediterranean. But the herb is also found growing across the world. Lemon balm is also easily mistaken for mint in a garden.
Lemon balm bushes and the leaves look like those of mint. You can tell lemon balm from the mint by rubbing the leaves for a lemony scent instead of the menthe of mint. The tallest height that lemon balm grows is in line with the size of a mint and can be up to three feet high.
Lemon balm leaves are long and heart-shaped, similar to mint’s oblong leaf shape. Both lemon balm and mint have veined leaves with rough edges, which also make these tricky to tell apart. Lemon balm has small white and even pinkish-colored flowers. And when mint flowers, it is the purplish-white hue that stands out.
Related: 6 Plants That Look Like Lemon Balm
4. Catnip (Nepeta cataria)
Catnip (Nepeta cataria) grows naturally in Europe and is related to mints like spearmint, peppermint, and pennyroyal. But the plant’s name stands as a genus on its own. It’s part of the Nepeta genus with sturdy stems. The leaves are opposite in position and heart-shaped, with the colors ranging from green to gray-green.
Catnip is aromatic in foliage and flowers and is characteristic of the Lamiaceae (mint) family. And as a mint lookalike, catnip shows its likeness through similar leaves.
The difference between these lookalike plants is their uses. Compared to the mint, catnip’s is even eccentrically different. Though the catnip leaves look like mint, it isn’t the same. Catnip has an oil extract nepetalactone in its leaves that’s an insect repellent and at the same time attracts cats.
Catnip is an insect repellent for cockroaches, mosquitoes, mites, and ticks. Medicinally catnip’s uses are for fevers, colds, cramps, and even migraines. It’s not uncommon to see cats lick, chew, rub against and salivate when near catnip. Big cats like lions, leopards, and jaguars even are drawn closer to catnip.
Catnip resembles the mint family of plants and also has the characteristic square stem of the plant in the Lamiaceae family. The catnip leaves are similarly shaped to that of mint and have rough edges. The leaves are rounded at the stem and narrow towards the point.
Catnip and mint flowers differ, with catnip showing small and fragrant pink flowers with purple spots.
5. Vietnamese mint
Vietnamese mint in the name is like mint, but it’s not part of the same Lamiaceae family. The herb is a favorite in Southeast Asian cuisine. It is from the genus Persicaria which is in the Polygonaceae family. The Vietnamese herb has overtones of citrus and mint with a distinct spiciness. It’s often referred to as a hot mint or coriander and served with sea snails and shellfish.
The Vietnamese mint fits into the smartweeds or pink weeds, and like mint, the herb has thin and long pointy leaves. The leaves, on close inspection, are smooth and don’t have the serrations that mint has. The leaves are elongated, though, which gives the impression of Vietnamese mint being a mint.
The Vietnamese mint is closer related to Vietnamese coriander, which is neither in the mint family Lamiaceae, though it looks like a mint and even has a mint fragrance.