Know Your Herbs: Mint
World-renowned for its hallmark cool flavour, mint has had a long journey to its modern day commercial success.
First, let’s clear up one common point of confusion. Does “mint” refer to spearmint or peppermint? The two flavours are extraordinarily distinct and have instigated many childhood fights over which chewing gum to buy. Spearmint (Mentha spicata) is where it all began. Originally native to Europe, spearmint is a long, aggressively growing sprawl of small, sweet leaves. The essential oils in the leaves produce a much milder flavour than that of peppermint, and spearmint is generally more pleasant to eat raw. Peppermint (Mentha piperita) is the naturally-occurring genetic cross of spearmint with the native aquatic mint (Mentha aquatica). When “mint” first appeared in documents scrawled by early herbalists and historians, the name interchangeably referred to both species.
It stands to reason that mint was discovered long before written history – its alluring fragrances outright begs for attention. Dried peppermint leaves dating back thousands of years have been found enclosed in sacred Egyptian tombs. This evidence and more suggest that ancient Egyptians may have actively cultivated peppermint for ritualistic use. Mint’s notoriety becomes truly apparent once we start investigating the documents our ancestors left behind.
One big publicity boost for mint was a shout-out from Jesus in the New Testament, when members of a religious order paid their church tithes in the form of mint and other treasured herbs. Pliny the Elder (23-79 C.E.), a famous Roman naturalist and philosopher, noted that mint was commonly used to add flavour to food and drink (especially their beloved wine). Mint became closely associated with the act of eating. Before a meal, tables were often rubbed down with the aromatic leaves. Mint leaves were kept on hand to be chewed for improved digestion. Hey – you know, maybe that’s where today’s after dinner mint tradition started!
The Greek mythology surrounding mint tells a tale of temptation, romance and revenge: a beautiful river nymph, Menthe, seduced Hades, God of the Underworld. His scorned wife transformed Menthe into the mint plant. The punishment? An eternity of people stomping on her. Hades worked his own magic to give her a lovely, easily-identifiable odour so he could always find her.
The essential oils of mint seem too bright and delightful to have been conjured by the ruler of the underworld. Loaded with menthol, mint has numerous curative properties. When you are feeling down there is nothing more soothing for a sore throat, or for a troubled mind, than a warm cup of mint tea. Herbalists still recommend mint for anxiety, poor digestion, stomach pains, and vomiting.
American businesses exploited mint’s popularity in the late 1800s and turned it into a highly-marketable global sensation. Mint can be found in practically every aisle of the supermarket: toothpastes, chewing gum, hard candies, chocolates, alcohol, and more.
The word “mint” is synonymous with freshness.
The leaves are as lovely to look at as they are to eat, so these plants fortunately make for aesthetically-pleasing ground cover. Mint plants can take over a garden as thoroughly as they have conquered the world. They spring up fast and grow wildly, so they need plenty of breathing room. There is, of course, the risk Hades will manifest in your garden searching for his forbidden love, but otherwise mint is a highly recommended, easy-to-grow addition to any herb garden.