Introducing Menthe piperita L. the offspring between Mentha spicata (spearmint) and Mentha aquatic (watermint). This hybridity has led the flowers of the peppermint to be sterile. Its ability to vegetatively spread rhizomatically has led to the categorization of peppermint as a weed. Creeping just above soil level, it sends out a series of runners or ‘stolon’s’ from which new plants are continuously propagated, emanating close by to the parent plant.
Peppermint belongs to the Lamiaceae family of flowering plants commonly known as mint or dead nettle family, with more than 7,000 species, this family has great importance to humans for their complex array of useful flavors, fragrances, and medicinal properties.
I became particularly interested in peppermint, through a little known family gardening history in America with parallels in England, known as Gamma Gardening. This gardening ‘technique’ emerged following WW11, part of the ‘Atoms for Peace Programme’, whose aims were to develop peaceful use of fission energy (atom splitting). Gamma gardens were established in various scientific labs throughout the USA, Europe, Russia, India and Japan. Although initially the gardens were designed with the aim of testing the effects of radiation on plant life and the wider environment, research gradually turned to using radiation to introduce beneficial mutations that could give plants additional properties promoting benefits such as size and disease resistance for example.
While searching an on-line database to find out what plants had been irradiated, peppermint turned up on the list. These strains were listed as ‘Todd’s’ Mitcham and ‘Murray’ Mitcham. Looking further down the database, the original parent from which the two varieties were cultivated is ‘Mitcham’. Mitcham is a very old variety of peppermint, ‘Mitcham’ is the name of a small town just outside London, ‘Mitcham’ grew ‘Mitcham’.
Through further investigations, the names ‘Murray’ and ‘Todd’ also embedded a diverse lineage of scientific and agricultural practice in the States. Merritt J. Murray, was a scientist who worked at the Brookhaven Lab and also a researcher for the A.M. Todd Company. Todd revealed one of the key families in the States involved in peppermint production, particularly in Michigan A.M. Todd. Alfred, who at the age of 23 traveled to Europe, found himself in Mitcham, exploring the vast tracks of land infused with peppermint. His keen observations lent him to believe that the Mitcham peppermint was a better quality pant to the variety that was originally grown back home. A few years later (1880), he shipped in bulk rootstocks from England to America, and it is from this rootstock, which fuelled the peppermint industry in America to this day.
Walking through the NYBG Steere Herbarium, fearful as to what might not be found, I arrived on the fourth floor, guided to rows of large standing metal presses . These presses contained folders of the grand expansive family that is the Lamiaceae family. Instinct sometimes takes over. The first folder to open, turning slowly each pressed plant, I found Mentha piperita L, grown at A. M. Company, Kalamazoo, Michigan. Further down the shelves, in a separate folder ‘Todd’ revealed himself ‘Mentha Niliaca Jacq. Em. Briq.
These pressed plants dating 1955, are the heritage stock from which the aroma of the past will make itself present through further endeavors that I intend to develop.
… to be continued, Christine Mackey, New York, May 2018
ABOUT CHRISTINE MACKEY
Christine Mackey is our May 2018 A.I.R, studio-based at The Leitrim Sculpture Centre, Ireland, she is a current holder of a Fulbright Artist Research Scholarship in the States pursuing independent research on the ecological and often at times antagonistic relationships between plants and the world of humans.
Christine has developed her practice through place-specific/context driven international residency programmes with recent endeavors taking place at Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), where she co-collaborated with a Men’s Shed group in the re-imaginings of a Chicken coop ‘Home Grown Housing’; through The Observatory Residency, in England, she discovered Asparagus Setaceus growing in the Vine House at Beaulieu a descendent from Lady Cecil Kerr’s wedding bouquet in 1889, which led to the work ‘Silent Needles Speaking Flowers’ a visual and textual exploration on the social bond of plants to humans and currently she has work in the group exhibition Common Ground at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, ‘To Draw in the Footsteps of Ghosts’ a multi-disciplinary installation that pursues the historic planting of 51 woodlands in Northern Ireland, the people involved and the evolution of these sites.