Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Life and History of Mint

I always seem to enjoy starting these posts with a disclaimer along the lines of:

Now when I speak of mint, I speak of the popular mints such as peppermint, spearmint, pennyroyal. If I were to get into everything under the MINT family, the list would just go on and on. Just to give you an idea, the Lamiacae family includes basil, thyme, mint, rosemary, lavender, sage, savory, oregano, and the well-known teak trees. That is just a SMALL number of the Mint relatives.

Mmmm...I'm in the mood for some ice cream now!
True mints have the genus name Mentha. This name comes from a story in Greek mythology about a naiad (a nymph associated with a river) named Minthe who kept guard over the Cocytus river in the underworld. The story goes that one time Minthe caught the eye of Hades, and he proceeded to seduce her. But his wife, Persephone, found them out and promptly turned her into a lowly shrub to be trampled underfoot by all that passed by. Hades could not undo the spell and took pity on Minthe's situation by adding fragrance to her so that she would smell all the sweeter when trod upon.
It's not hard to see that Hades and his wife Persephone have some issues at home.

Mints are mostly perennial herbs, well-known for their low growth, spreading tendencies, and highly aromatic quality. Most mints prefer full sun to partial shade, though they are more susceptible to rust fungi in the shade. They have thin, serrated, pointed leaves that can dry out easily, so most mints prefer to have frequent watering, though they don't like to sit in water. Anyone who has had a mint in their garden can probably tell you that once a mint gets established, your other plants had better watch out, since mint can be pretty invasive.

Another story about mint shows how it became popular as the herb of hospitality: In Ovid's Metamorphoses, he tells the moral of Baucis and Philemon. It is said that Zeus and Hermes (Jupiter and Mercury, for those Romans out there) came down from Mt. Olympus disguised as regular peasants and visited a town, asking if anyone knew of a place that they could rest and have some food for the night. All of the people in the town closed their doors to the gods in disguise save for the old married couple, Baucis and Philemon. Upon inviting their guests in, Baucis and Philemon proceeded to crush mint and rub it all over their house to get rid of the earthy smell of their common home. Then, they fed their guests and allowed them to rest for the night. After their meal, Zeus and Hermes showed their true identities to Baucis and Philemon and warned them to leave the town as a flood was coming. Everyone from the town other than the old couple perished in the flood and all houses were washed away except the old couple's, which was turned into a temple. From then on, mint was seen as a great sign of hospitality.

"Jupiter and Mercurius in the house of Philemon and Baucis" by Peter Paul Rubens
Mint at one point was used by the Pharisees to pay their tithes. The Romans would crown themselves in peppermint to invigorate and refresh the mind. The Greeks believed that mint could clear the throat and cure the hiccups. In the middle ages it kept the fleas at bay, was used in baths and was strewn about on the floors for scent. In Central and South America, mint is known as hierbabuena or "good herb". Japanese mint was thought to be a type of birth control. In magic, mint is used in spells to ensure safe travel, to invite good spirits, and to bring money.

In the kitchen, most people probably think of mint jellies and sauces to go with lamb or in candies, the most common place for mint use. But, there are many other uses for mint: Welsh cooks often add mint to their boiling water before preparing cabbage. Dried mint is sometimes used in split pea soup instead of salt. Mint is used in compliment to veal, lamb, eggplant, many different beans, and fruit. It is a popular herb in Greek, Indian, Middle Eastern, North African, and Arabic cuisine.
A perfect flavor: lamb chops and mint sauce.
Mint is great medicinally as well, one of the true home remedies out there. Cosmetically, mint stimulates the skin. Steeping a cup of fresh peppermint or spearmint in a quart of cool water makes mint water, which is great for washing the face and keeping it cool. Mint steeped with rosemary in vinegar is said to be a home remedy for dandruff. Medically, mint has been used to cure almost anything you could think such as dog bites, colic, digestive issues, headaches, heartburn, and insomnia. Here are just a few remedies still used today: peppermint steeped in warm milk is said to be good for the stomach and for menstrual cramps, peppermint tea is good for flatulence, fresh peppermint leaves applied to the forehead help with headaches and help with joint pain, gargling with spearmint tea helps with a sore throat.
Refreshing and delicious while still warming!
It is important to know which mints are good medicinally and which are more aromatic! The reason peppermint is so good for medicine is that it produces MENTHOL. Menthol is great at its job because it is considered an antispasmodic (it calms muscles) and it helps to stimulate the flow of bile to the stomach, promoting digestion. Spearmint is less effective and is usually used more for flavor than for medicine, though the U.S. EPA has been reviewing the potential of using R-carvone (chemical from the oil of spearmint) as a mosquito repellent.

Another quick note before I end this post, since I could go on all day about mint (seriously, there are too many remedies and uses for mint! :D). Never should anyone EVER buy peppermint seeds! If you want PURE peppermint, you will not get it from seed. Peppermint is a sterile hybrid between Spearmint and water mint, so you will never get seeds from it. 

And so as my post comes to an end, I say bring mint into your life! Give it to a neighbor as a housewarming gift, make yourself some tea (for those where it is getting colder), make yourself some mint water (for those where its is still warm out), or just have some nice mint chocolate chip ice cream and think back to how much history is behind that simple minty leaf!


  1. Wonderful post! You take us into underworlds, fragrance and delicious tastes. ;>)

  2. I love your post about mint! I grow heirloom plants, and I've had many clients ask me to start growing more herbs, particularly for medicinal use. I've been reading so many books about herbal remedies, and I love the historical significance of the herbs! Terrific post--thanks for sharing.

  3. I find it difficult to differentiate between spearmint and peppermint. Can I say that spearmint is the one we use in cooking?