Mentha was a nymph who because of the love Pluto bore her, was metamorphosed by a jealous Prosperine into the plant we now call mint. Thus begins the ages-old history of one of our most common herbs. Highly esteemed for many centuries, the Mentha species originated in the Mediterranean regions and has been known and used since the earliest of times. Some varieties, slight variations of Menta spicata (our common spearmint,) came from Egypt and the Holy Land—probably carried into northern and central Europe by the Crusaders.
In Athens of old, every part of the body was perfumed with a different scent–mint being specifically designated to the arms. Greeks and Romans crowned themselves with peppermint at their feasts and adorned their tables with its sprays. Their cooks flavored both their sauces and their wines with its essence according to the scholar Pliny. It is believed that the Romans were responsible for introducing this herb to Britain.
Mint is mentioned in the Icelandic Pharmacopoeias of the thirteenth century and as early as the fourteenth century, mint was used for whitening the teeth. This custom prevails even now in that much of our toothpaste is flavored with mint.
Dr. Westmacott, in 1694, wrote this about mints: “…they have a biting, aromatic bitterish vapor with a strong fragrant smell abounding with a pungent volatile salt and a subtle sulphur which destroys acids, and herein doth lodge the causation of such medicinal virtues in this herb…”
Mentioned in the Bible and by Chaucer and Shakespeare, Chaucer refers to ‘a little path of mints full and fenill greene.’ An herbalist of a later period, Gerard says, “The smelle rejoice the the heart of man…the smell of minte does stir up the minde and the taste to a greedy desire of meate.” Parkinson recommends: “Mintes are sometimes used in baths with Balm and other herbs as a help to comfort and strengthen the nerves and sinews. It is much used either outwardly applies or inwardly drunk to strengthen and comfort weak stomackes.”
Although we have a native mint growing in the wilds of North America, it occurs most often in watery places. Most varieties of herb we identify as mints were transported early in our history from Europe. Mints are undemanding; a moist situation is preferable but once gotten started, will succeed in average soils. It does best in a partially shaded position.
A perennial which spreads by means of its underground, creeping stems, when dug up, every piece of root showing a joint will produce a new plant. All plants should be cut to the ground occasionally to encourage fresh new leaves and to discourage leggy stems. Top dressing the bed with rich compost toward the end of summer is quite beneficial.
Mint is susceptible to a disease called rust: a fungus that develops inside the plant and cannot be eradicated without destroying the plant. To prevent the spread of this fatal disease, immediately dig up any plants that show signs of rust. Do not replant mint in this same area.
Mints thrive in moist humus soil in shade but also in sun and there are few pests that bother this herb. They are rapid spreaders and will overrun other plants sharing their space. This can be controlled by planting within an open bottom container that is at least twelve to eighteen inches deep. Prepare for winter by cutting back plants to the ground; spread a layer of compost over the bed to feed the emerging plants next spring.
Mints are divided into three groups: peppermint, pennyroyal, and spearmint. There are several varieties of peppermint (Mentha piperita officinalis) which is sometimes known as Brandy mint. Most commonly available species are English Black, a handsome dark plant with stems and leaves tinged purplish-brown that creep along the ground in early spring and later grows up to three or four feet tall with beautiful dark purplish-blue flowers. White, whose stems are green, has leaves that are more coarsely serrated than the Black variety.
Varieties of Mint
Corn Mint or Field Mint (Mentha arvensis) is the variety from which the Japanese distill their oil for commercial purposes. It is red-stemmed with small leaves. The Japanese have long recognized the value of Menthol, the oil derived from Peppermint and over two hundred years ago would carry it about with them in little silver boxes hanging from their girdles.
A milder peppermint is M. Piperita citrata known variously as Bergamot Mint, Orange Mint or Mint Eau-de-Cologne. Most fragrant of the peppermints and somewhat manageable of all the species, this herb has dark green leaves touched with purple along its edges. Its delicious fragrance is retained when dried, making this mint an excellent addition to potpourris. Peppermint is the most extensively used of all the mints, both medicinally and commercially. It is not used in cooking because of its strong flavor but when taken as a tea it is highly therapeutic for many ailments.
Spearmint (Mentha spicata) was probably established in American gardens by 1739. Also called garden mint of English mint, this species now grows throughout the temperate regions of the world. The Ancients believed that mint would prevent the coagulation of milk and its acid fermentation. There are many other references to spearmint in old writings such as the biblical payment of tithes which established this herb’s high esteem for many centuries.
The spearmint family has many varieties to choose from. When grown in damp soil, the fragrance intensifies. Many a farmhouse grew a clump beneath the outdoor water spigot. The leaves smell of lemon and mint; when fresh, they taste bitter, sharp and camphor-like. Common spearmint makes a dense patch of vigorous upright stems with slightly crinkled leaves. At full maturity it can reach three feet tall; white, clustered flowers extend along a skinny spike in a spear shape, mainly blooming in late summer to autumn.
Mentha s. crispii is more commonly known as Curly Mint. It has rounder, ruffled leaves on smaller-growing plants. This is also a rampant grower that will achieve two feet in height; give it room to spread. Other cultivars of M. spicata are milder and the leaves are sometimes gray-green, sometimes wooly in texture. M. Suaveolens, otherwise known as Pineapple Mint, is often confused with Wooly Apple Mint because of its slightly fruity scent.
M. Rotundiflolia, with its round, apple-scented leaves was once used in the monasteries of Europe for the treatment of epilepsy. Apple Mint grows in both sun or shade, rich or lean soil. The soft gray-green fuzzy leaves and tall growth make it an attractive ground cover. Its blossoms are gray-whitish, shading to pink or pale purple. The variegated apple mint, which is sometimes confusedly called Pineapple Mint, has creamy-white and soft-green leaves with a slightly fruitier scent. Use these leaves fresh as much of the flavor is lost when dried. Golden Apple Mint or Ginger Mint (M. s. gentilis) has gold-flecked leaves with dark red stems and a spicy scent.
Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) is sought after because it is a strong deterrent to mosquitoes and effectively repels fleas. One of its common names was “flea-away.” A creeper, for most of the year it clings to the ground, every small tentacle forming rootlets and creates a dense aromatic mat of glossy leaves. It makes an excellent groundcover but unfortunately is not winter-hardy. In late summer, it sends up spires of flower stalks bearing lavender-colored blooms growing in whorls up each one-foot stem. Known as “blekon” or “glekon” by the Greeks, they used it as a seasoning for meat. There is also an upright variety sometimes sold as “American Pennyroyal”.
Small and plain-looking, you might overlook Pennyroyal unless you happen to step upon it. Then, wow! It really makes its presence known. This is a good mint for hanging baskets also.
The Wild Mint (Menta aquatica) is the commonest of the mints growing into one to two feet wide masses in wet places. Distinguished by its down foliage and whorls of lilac flowers, the scent is strong and unpleasant having an odor of pennyroyal.
Corsican Mint (M. Requienni) is a tiny-leafed mint with a strong menthol aroma. Its lavender flowers are barely visible and its leaves are so tiny you almost need tweezers to pick them. Minute and mossy, it grows only one inch high and does best in shady, well-drained soil that is shielded from drying winds. Not recommended for spots getting full sun, it does best as a ground-cover for plants in containers or pots.
Uses for Mint
As far as the uses of mint, peppermint is most frequently the mint used medicinally. The chief constituent, Menthol, is used in medicine to relieve the pain of rheumatism, neuralgia, throat affections and toothaches. It acts as a local anesthetic, vascular stimulant, and disinfectant. Peppermint is good for inducing perspiration and is also used for palpitations of the heart. Peppermint helps to relieve congestion in any part of the body, whether it is a headache, a cold, or bronchitis. Only the leaves and tops should be infused as a tea as the stems are bitter tasting.
Spearmint is the mint used for making mint sauce or mint jelly (and Mint Juleps.) Add to cooked peas; new baby potatoes are more digestible with chopped mint added. Mint brings out the flavor of tomatoes and whole mint leaves in green salads are delicious. A strong decoction of Spearmint is said to cure chapped hands. And be sure to follow Adela Simmons advice to: “…hang bunches of mint from open doors or archways…mint tied to screen doors send cool odors throughout the house.”
Fresh tips of most mints can be used in salads; harvesting the tips will encourage bushier growth of your plants. Harvesting of the whole plant should begin just as they break into bloom. Cut the stalk just above the ground and hang upside-down to dry where air circulation is good and there is no direct sunlight. To speed up the drying process (which is usually necessary in my area of high humidity,) stip the leaves from the stems and spread on window screens or in shallow cardboard trays. Place out of direct sunlight. When the leaves are crisp, store in airtight containers, preferably glass. If spearmint is being harvested for medicinal purposes, the shoots should be gathered in August to obtain the highest levels of the volatile oil.
Cross-pollination and self-sowing can give mint enthusiasts some unusual specimens that can prove difficult to label. Madalene Hill in Southern Herb Growing says there are some 600 varieties of this large genus of plants.
Growing Tips for Mint
From creeping root-stocks, mints produce erect, square stems that rise to a height of about two feet, bearing very crinkled, green leaves, with finely toothed edges, the ribs very prominent beneath. Mints grow best in a partially shaded position. It has a hardiness to zone 5. The plant is a perennial and spreads by means of its underground, creeping stems. Propagate by lifting the roots in February or March, divide and replant in a shallow trench, covering with two inches of soil. Cutting may be taken anytime in summer. Choose young shoots. Keep moist until rooted. A liberal top-dressing of aged manure will ensure luxuriant growth. Mint is susceptible to verticillium wilt, mint rust, and mint anthracnose, especially when grown in soggy soil. The diseased plants must be dug up and burned. There are at least twenty-five main species of mint and hundreds of hybrids and variants.
Did You Know?
- In Mexico and the Southwest, spearmint is known as yerba buena.
- Mints symbolize cheerfulness.
- All the mints yield fragrant oils by distillation.
- Mints were cultivated in the Convent gardens of the ninth century.
- Romans crowned themselves with Peppermint at their feasts and adorned their tables with its sprays.
- The oldest existing Peppermint district is in the neighborhood of Mitcham, in Surrey, where its cultivation from a commercial point of view dates from about 1750.
- Peppermint is a sterile hybrid and does not produce seed.
- Dried mint in drawers may repel moths and cockroaches.