In my mind, spring and mint just go together. We combine fresh spring peas with mint, and serve Easter lamb with mint sauce. What would Derby Day be without mint juleps, but just another horse race?
Here in North Carolina mint is in its full glory in May and June. I made the mistake of thinking nothing would grow in a very shady spot on the north side on my house, so I planted mint. I figured if anything would grow, it would be mint. Well, I was right… but a little too right! If I’m not vigilant, my mint begins to overtake the entire garden–at least until it starts to die back in the heat and dry weather of late summer.
This means I have to be aggressive in picking and using my mint, or else I have to pull it up and throw it away, which has been known to happen I’m afraid. That’s been hard to accept since I adore mint in all of its amazing varieties–spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint, citrus mint (bergamot), and more. If you love mint as much as I do just remember to plant it in a pot, and keep different varieties away from each other so they don’t cross-pollinate.
Are you interested in ways to use mint in culinary applications? If so, check out the recipe links I’ve included at the end of the article. Mint’s value however, doesn’t end in the kitchen. This fragrant herb has an interesting history and many therapeutic uses as well.
Mints are in the genus, Mentha, and in the family Lamiaceae, which includes fragrant plants like rosemary, basil, thyme, and lavender. Mints need moist soil, which is why they do so well in shady locations that don’t dry out easily. They spread through runners, so you need to be careful where you plant them. If they’re growing in pots (as recommended) keep them well-watered, and they’ll grow without further effort except an occasional feeding. There’s nothing quite as refreshing as adding a sprig of fresh-picked mint to your water, tea, or lemonade, not to mention salads and sauces.
The name “Mint” or “menthas” comes from Greek mythology. Minthe, a nymphe, was the lover of Hades/Pluto, god of the underworld. When Pluto’s wife (Persephone) found out, she reacted in a fit of rage and killed little Minthe. Pluto still loved her and was able to bring her back to life in a different form, as a fragrant plant. Other versions of the story say that Pluto’s wife turned Minthe into a plant so her husband could not have her. Either way, we end up with a fragrant end to a sad story of love, betrayal, and murder. (I guess the human condition is not so different from that of the gods!)
When I think of mint, I typically think of peppermint, which means “peppery” or “spicy” from the Latin “piperita.” Aristotle spoke of it as an aphrodisiac, and Alexander the Great banned it from use by his armies because he believed (from experience?) that it caused erotic thoughts. Research into mint’s benefit as an aphrodisiac is ongoing, but there’s no reason to wait for a study to prove or disprove it. Give it a try, if you dare.
For some reason, mint symbolized virtue in Victorian times, which is a little strange considering its use as an aphrodisiac. However, the root meaning of virtue is strong, mighty, valiant, etc., so perhaps they were thinking of virile warriors at the time.
One of my favorite members of the mint family is bergamot, or Mentha Citrata. Bergamot is an ingredient in Earl Grey tea and is used in many perfumes since it’s so fragrant. Recently, it has enjoyed renewed popularity and can be found in natural soaps and lotions. Bergamot is recommended by herbalists as good for depression, anxiety, and even high blood pressure. It has a synergistic effect when combined with lavender and ylang ylang oils, so have a little fun and mix up your own fragrance using these ingredients. One way to enjoy bergamot is to place a few drops on a tissue and place the tissue next to you at work. Pick it up whenever you’re tense and about to yell at someone. Pretend to wipe you nose, but just breathe in the delightful, calming scent instead–it will help you keep your mouth shut. Now that I think about it, this might be a good idea for all of you moms out there, too!
Today, mints are found in teas and preparations to soothe stomach and intestinal problems, headaches, coughs, and colds.
Did you know that peppermint tea is recommended for students before taking an exam? The theory is that it improves concentration through its calming and anti-anxiety properties.
Pennyroyal is one of the few mints that should not be ingested unless you’re working with a qualified herbalist who really knows what they’re doing. The essential oil is used externally as a bug and mosquito repellant.
Mint makes a wonderful astringent and is nice in foot scrubs, bath salts, and soaps. Add peppermint essential oil to plain bath sea salts for an uplifting and refreshing soak in the tub.
As you can see, mint is so versatile! However, if you simply want some culinary ideas, check out these recipes:
Grieve. A Modern Herbal (©1931)
Natural Standard: The Authority on Integrative Medicine. www.naturalstandard.com
The Herb Society. Mint, 2013.