The genus Mentha, named for the mythological nymph Minthe, includes many species used for flavor, fragrance, or medicinal purposes. Most are native to Europe and Asia and have naturalized widely — the spreading roots send up new plants that can quickly overtake other plants in the area. All have square stems; spikes of tiny purple, pink, or white flowers (loved by bees); and highly aromatic leaves.
Peppermint (Mentha × piperita) bears smooth, purple-tinged leaves and spikes of lilac-pink flowers. Ancient Greeks and Romans not only used the mint to flavor sauces and wine, but also wore peppermint crowns during feasts. Popular varieties include lemon or orange mint (M. × piperita var. ‘Citrata’), lime mint (M. × piperita ‘Lime’), and chocolate mint (M. x piperita ‘Chocolate’).
Spearmint (M. spicata) bears spikes (or “spears”) of pale pink-violet flowers and wrinkled, bright green leaves favored for teas and cocktails, such as the mint julep and mojito. Pineapple mint (M. suaveolens), also known as apple mint, has purple-pink flowers and light green leaves with a fruity aroma and flavor.
Common Name: Mint
Description: Square-stemmed perennials, up to 2 feet tall; terminal spikes of tiny purple, pink, or white flowers; opposite toothed leaves; highly aromatic
Hardiness: To Zone 4
Flowering: Midsummer to late summer
Parts Used: Leaves
Range/Habitat: Native or naturalized along streams and in other moist areas in temperate regions throughout the world
Add mint to desserts, salads, sauces, and jellies, and to hot and cold teas and cocktails. For a refreshing complement to hot or spicy foods, combine chopped fresh mint with chopped cucumbers and plain yogurt. Also try fresh mint in tuna salads; dress it with lime vinaigrette. Mint pairs especially well with peas (including split peas), carrots, and new potatoes.
Spearmint and peppermint can be used to treat gastrointestinal disorders such as stomachaches and nausea, as well as fatigue. Peppermint’s main constituent is a volatile oil, which is generally about 50 percent menthol. Both the fresh and dried leaves of the plant, as well as its essential oil, generate an antispasmodic effect on the smooth muscles of your gastrointestinal tract.
By stimulating digestive flow and the production of bile, peppermint may help relieve gastrointestinal conditions such as flatulence, painful digestion, intestinal cramping, irritable bowel syndrome, and nausea due to stomach upset, motion sickness, or pregnancy.
Peppermint oil is used to treat the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and is most often recommended as an enteric-coated pill that will open and release the oil in your intestines, rather than in your stomach. In aromatherapy, peppermint oil is used as a stimulant to increase concentration and reduce sleepiness. Placing a drop of the essential oil in a pan of hot water and inhaling the steam may help relieve lung and sinus congestion.
Spearmint oil is considered gentler than peppermint oil (it contains much less menthol than peppermint does), but it also can be used to treat digestive complaints. In aromatherapy, it is used to treat fatigue as well as respiratory conditions such as colds, coughs, and bronchitis.
In the past, pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) tea was used to treat stomach problems and to promote menstruation, but consuming tea of this species has been linked to cases of acute liver damage and infant death. Pennyroyal should be used only under the supervision of a highly qualified health-care practitioner.
Caution: Pennyroyal should not be used by people with liver or kidney disease, or by pregnant or nursing women. The essential oil is highly toxic.
Mint oil is used commercially to flavor candies, chewing gum, cough drops, breath mints, digestive aids, dental products, and cold and flu remedies. Many skin-care, hair, and beauty products contain mint because it has a cooling and stimulating effect.
Pennyroyal was traditionally used as an insect repellent: The species name, pulegium, derives from the Latin word for flea. But the essential oil of this plant is extremely toxic; never apply it to your pet’s skin or fur.
How to grow it
Popular in kitchen herb gardens, mint grows best in moist soil in full sun or partial shade. Most mints spread readily, so consider planting them in large containers or a confined area of your garden. Harvest the leaves several times per season, before the plant flowers. Mints are easy to propagate by root division or cuttings.
MAKE YOUR OWN MINT TOOTHPASTE
The refreshing flavor of mint makes it a natural for toothpaste and other dental products. To make your own minty mouth cleanser, bring ¼ cup of water to a boil along with 1 tablespoon of chopped fresh peppermint leaves. Remove the pan from the heat and steep for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, mix together ½ teaspoon of baking soda, ½ teaspoon of cornstarch, and ½ teaspoon of grapeseed oil; stir until smooth. Strain the cooled mint tea, then add the liquid to the baking soda mixture. Bring the mixture to a boil again, stirring until it’s slightly thickened and smooth. Cool completely and store in an airtight container.