The Lamiaceae/Labiatae family is one of the largest families of angiosperms. There are some 224 genera and over 3200 species in this family, many with important uses outside of being ornamental. In fact, numerous members of this family have been used for alternative medicines by third world countries dating back to the early Chinese Empire.Today there are still many of these countries which are not able to acquire modern pharmaceuticals for illnesses and therefore rely on the same herbal concoctions handed down by their ancestors.
In addition to these third world countries, there are practicing herbalists even in the industrialized nations which for one reason or another have elected to rely on alternative medicines rather than the traditional ones.
Another important use for many of the herbs found in this family is in essential oils. These oils are used as fragrances in bath oils, soaps, potpouri, perfumes, candles and many other items requiring a fragrance. These oils are extracted by a method known as steam distillation. Since this process requires such an abundance of materials to end up with very little product, the resulting oils are very expensive. Several types of oils that are extracted include isomenthone, isopinocamphone, carvone, menthol, and methyl acetate. The type of oil extract produced varies from specie to specie.
While not all spices are members of the mint family, there are many mint members which are primarily used for culinary purposes. Amongst the more familiar of these spices are: Basil (Ocimum), Mint (Mentha), Sage (Salvia), Rosemary (Rosemarinus), and Thyme (Thymus).
The diversity or distribution of members of this family can be quite widespread in some cases, while others exists only in certain small areas. Examples of this would be Glechoma hederacea (ground ivy) which is widely distributed throughout the United States and Western Europe, while species such as Hemiandra pungens (snake bush) is endemic to the Australian continent. When we speak of endemic, we mean that it is only found within that specified area due to natural occurrences. There are plants; however, that exists within an area which are not native or naturally occurring in that area, and we refer to these species as introduced or introductions. These introductions may be intentional such as in the case where an individual or company orders seed or plants from another country with intentions of mass producing them here for sale. On the other hand, this introduction can also be by accidental means such as the importation of crops which have had stray seed distributed by the wind contaminate the contents.
As in all plant families, there is a common name and a scientific name for each species. Most people are more familiar with the common names for these plants as they are easier to remember. The problem with the common name is that often more than one species will have the same common name as another. This problem is avoided when using the scientific names. An example of this situation where confusion could easily be found is with the common name Basil. There is a Basil, and a Wild Basil which would make it difficult to be sure which species was being referred to using only the common name. The differences would be readily apparent if the scientific names Ocimum for Basil, and Clinopodium for Wild Basil were used instead. The differentiation does not end here; however, as there are still differences in the types of Ocimum. These differences are reflected by a second part of the name. An example of this would be basillicum or gratissimum added to the Ocimum name resulting in Ocimum basilicum or Ocimum gratissimum. In scientific names the first name is always capitalized and the second name always begins with a lower case letter. In many cases there will be another letter or group of letters attached to the name. An example of this would be the letter "L" or the letters "Benth." These are a designation as to the name of the person who originally found and described the species. The "L." in this case is the abbreviation for Linnaeus and "Benth.", the abbreviation for Bentham. There may also be a variety or cultivar for some plants which would be designated by either the abbreviation "var." or 'type name'.