Nothing is more refreshing than a frosty glass of iced tea garnished with a sprig of fresh mint to quench the deepest thirst on a hot summer day. For centuries, mint has been treasured for its spicy aroma, pleasing taste and healing properties. It has long been used to settle a nervous stomach and freshen the breath, but it has other health benefits that we are now just discovering.
Origins of Mint
The term mint, or Menta is used to refer to any of the hundreds of species in the mint family, but some of the most common varieties are spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint, apple mint, orange mint and Swiss mint (also known as pennyroyal).
The mint plant got its name from a nymph, Minthe or Menthe, a character in Greek mythology, who according to legend was Pluto’s girlfriend. Pluto’s wife, Persephone, became jealous and turned her rival into a ground-clinging plant. While Pluto was not able to change Minthe back to her original form, he gave her the ability to sweeten the air when her leaves and stems were crushed. Because mint is so widely available and there are so many different types, its popularity as a culinary and medicinal herb has remained throughout history.
Originally indigenous to Asia and the Mediterranean, mint is now cultivated in a wide range of climates and growing conditions. Beloved by the Romans, it is believed mint was brought to Western Europe and the British Isles with the advancement of the Roman Empire, and later to the Americas by explorers and early settlers.
The active ingredients in mint are the essential menthol oils for medicinal applications. Fresh mint leaves may be used in a poultice to heal minor burns and skin irritations. Mint tea may settle the stomach and aid digestion, clear the sinuses and calm the nerves. Chewing a fresh spearmint leaf alleviates sour stomach and bad breath. The aromatic scent of mint is thought to clear the mind and relieve mental stress. Inhaling vapors from mint leaves steeped in hot water may relieve bronchial distress as well as relax the muscles and soothe the nerves.
Mint also may have benefits as an anticancer food. The plant contains a phytonutrient called perillyl alcohol, which has been shown in studies on animals to prevent the formation of colon, skin and lung cancer. However, further study is needed to confirm whether it has similar effects in humans.
Beware of “Mint” Takeover
Mint is easy to grow (a gross understatement) for even the rookie herb gardener. It’s a great place to start when creating your herb garden, but BEWARE…mint is an extremely invasive plant. Mint is propagated by its roots or “runners” that spread and will quickly take over a flowerbed or garden if you are not careful. (Another note from the Editor: I started growing mint in a terra cotta pot with the typical drainage hole in the bottom – now my mint bed has claimed an area of about 8’ x 10.’ Fortunately I really like mint and have lots of room.) Mint can be grown safely in a pot on a patio or deck. However, when planting mint in a flowerbed, you should submerge a container (either a pot (without a drainage hole), a mesh bag or edging to at least 5 inches deep), leaving the rim above ground level when potted, so the mint’s fast-growing root system will be contained.
Harvest mint sprigs before the plant flowers. To extend the harvesting season, pinch off the flowering buds as they appear. Fresh leaves are available from early spring through late fall.
A Friend to the Gardener
In the garden, mint is useful as a companion plant. It repels aphids and cabbage flies. Plant it near tomatoes, cabbage, broccoli and greens. Use mint as a border plant to repel mice, rats and other such vermin, that find it extremely distasteful and may avoid entering your home when mint is used as a pest barrier. (Note from the Editor: We place mint sprigs inside our tomato cages to repel deer, which were eating our nearly ripe tomatoes and munching on their foliage.) Mint is also a natural repellant to mosquitoes and ants. And, it provides a fresh aroma in your garden. Mint plants release a crisp and refreshing scent that may revitalize your senses, stimulate your appetite and lighten your mood.
Uses for Fresh Mint
Fresh and dried leaves are used for flavoring sauces and beverages. Some of the foods made with or flavored by mint include mint jelly, mint sauce, herbal teas, iced teas, fruit drinks, candies and sweets. Peppermint is particularly complementary to chocolate. Some meat dishes use mint to offset strong tastes, for example lamb is often served with mint jelly.
Fresh peppermint leaves make an excellent garnish for beverages, dinner plates and serving plates. Chewing on a sprig of mint will freshen breath after a meal. Eating a couple of leaves may help with digestion.
Fresh Mint Tea
Yield: 4 cups of tea
4-5 stalks of fresh mint, with stems
4 cups boiling water
Sugar or honey, if desired
• Bring 4 cups of water to a boil.
• While water s boiling, fill a 4-5 cup teapot to the brim with hot water from the tap, and let it sit until the tea water boils
• When the water reaches a boil, empty the now-warm teapot. Roll the mint sprigs between you palms until it is slightly crushed. Place mint in teapot.
• Pour boiling water over the crushed mint, cover teapot and let it steep for 5 minutes.
• Pour into your favorite teacup, inhale deeply, and enjoy.
For a different take on this classic favorite, add a thin slice of lemon, lime or orange.