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Growing mint for wellbeing leads to international recognition

An interest in gardening to boost wellbeing has transformed into an internationally recognised collection preserving endangered plants for an academic at the University of Chester.

Dr Si Poole has combined a love of growing food, exploring gardening for the good of mental health and a passion for learning into a collection of 131 different types of mint plants, which has been recognised as a National Plant Collection.

The National Plant Collection is a conservation scheme run by Plant Heritage, through which individuals or organisations can document, develop and preserve a comprehensive collection of one group of plants in trust for the future. Like Si’s mint collection, most of the collections are composed of a related group. Collection holders voluntarily subscribe to the scheme’s ideals and stringent requirements and can be professional or amateur.

There are currently only three such collections of mint in the UK, with Si’s the second largest both here and in Europe. There are 20 species in the collection and 20 subspecies, with the rest being hybrid or cultivar plants (varieties produced by selective breeding) and Si has plans to obtain more from abroad to enhance his collection even further.

He explained: “Three root stocks are needed for each plant so there are around 500 plants in my garden. Some can’t survive the British climate so they are indoors.

“I have six plants which are classed as threatened and one endangered species. I am absolutely chuffed that my collection is helping the planet by preserving these rare species.”

Si discovered his passion for gardening during a previous career as a Chef working in a Mexican restaurant in Cologne. Intrigued by unusual ingredients, he started growing his own food and developed a fascination for learning more about the process.

As many others have discovered during the pandemic, he found gardening relaxing and a time when he could feel in the ‘Flow’ state of becoming fully immersed in an activity and zone into a feeling of wellbeing. He found this particularly comforting following a family bereavement, which inspired him to begin his mint collection.

“I knew a lot superficially about plants, but not a lot about one particular plant in depth. I love the idea of functionality and that I’m growing something for a reason,” Si said. “I wanted to grow a collection that would bring benefits to the planet and that also can be used and have a purpose.

“Mint is so versatile – there are drinks such as mint tea, crème de menthe, cocktails - and it is used in so many cuisines from around the world, as well as the oils these plants produce.

Si, who is a Senior Lecturer, Programme Leader for the Master’s in Creative Practice in Education and Senior Leader in Cultural Education and Research at Storyhouse, says he fits in his gardening by grabbing 10 or 15 minutes at the start and end of each day as a way to unwind and reconnect with nature.

He has been growing mint for just over two years and has launched a website https://mintopia.org/ where plants are sold to help pay for the upkeep of the collection and to inspire other growers.

He added: “It’s impossible for me to pick my favourite. There are too many to choose from and the different smells and tastes are mind-boggling. For example, there is a whole series of light citrus mints, such as lime, orange and mandarin. There are all types of scents and the variation of colour in the varieties is just beautiful – from pure grey and white to speckled as well as the different shaped leaves and flowers they produce.

“Tashkent mint is particularly vigorous and will just grow and grow and it’s perfect for a mint jelly. The first time I smelled banana mint it just blew my mind!

“It’s great for me and my wellbeing to be outside in the garden but I’m most proud of the fact that I’m helping the planet and improving biodiversity.”

Si’s plans for the future are to expand his website and encourage gardening in educational settings to improve wellbeing and reconnecting with nature.

“I never expected it would lead to being a recognised collection. It is a long and complicated process to achieve this and I’m really pleased. I certainly don’t have a huge garden, I’ve just made the most of the space I have with raised beds and pots everywhere. Anyone can start to grow, no matter how little space they have.”

Pictured - Dr Si Poole and some of his collection.

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