Mint – more than a sauce!
Like so many of our most popular herbs, mint (Mentha) is a member of the Lamiaceae (or Mint) family. It is not a genus with a large number of species but it does have a huge number of cultivars and hybrids across a wide geographic and environmental range. They are all low growing, spreading plants with round to ovate foliage and small white to mauve flowers.
There are approximately 20 species of mint, 10 natural interspecific hybrids and all sorts of cultivars. The main variance between varieties is the ‘taste’ of the foliage which is governed by the ratios of the various constituent oils. The genus is named after the ancient nymph from Greek mythology, Minthe. Like most of these old myths there is some variation in the story. The base form is that Peresphone was wed to Hades (Pluto) who is the brother of Zeus and Poseidon. Whilst walking along the Acheron River Persephone came across Hades making love to Minthe. She was so angry that she turned Minthe into a small shade loving plant that would forever be walked upon. Hades could not restore her so instead he gave Minthe a strong sweet perfume that would be released whenever she was stood upon. Hence Minthe would be sweetly remembered forever. A romantic tale of a delightfully aromatic plant.
The reality is that the majority of Menthe sp. prefer moist shady spots where they can spread extensively through quick growing stems that root from the nodes. They will tolerate full sun but don’t like being allowed to have dry roots. As they are vigorous growers they respond to either rich organic soil or regular applications of high nitrogen fertilisers. They prefer a slightly warmer environment but will tolerate cool nights and moderate frosts. Some varieties are deciduous and will die right back over winter and produce fresh green growth as soon as the spring suns come out.
Mentha is one of only a few genera that occur on every inhabited continent with Antarctica being the only continent that doesn’t have a native mint. Most of the species and cultivars come from the eastern Mediterranean and Asia. The standard varieties (common, spearmint and peppermint) have been around and in cultivation for so long that it is almost impossible to track down their natural places of origin. It has been referred to in the Bible, the writings of the Greeks, the Romans and most European philosophers.
Next month we will look at some of the culinary properties of mint. This month we will review some of the other uses both historical and current. Most herbs have a medicinal history more than a culinary one and Mint is no exception. It has been used for a myriad of medicinal and cosmetic purposes in western history and the assumption is that the Asian varieties have a similar history in the old civilisations of Japan and China. The fragrance is both sweet and strong that is pleasant to palate and clears the respiratory system. For this reason alone the plant was very popular in ancient times as a ‘perfume’, cleanser and home air freshener.
In both historic medicine and in modern natural remedies mint is excellent for helping with digestion and is an appetiser that will stimulate taste buds. It will ease indigestion whilst aiding the break down of heavy foods. It will also ease stomach cramps and help clear the strong feelings of nausea associated with travel and over eating. The mint aroma helps clear the respiratory system whilst stimulating the taste buds and it is this effect that combines with its natural curative effects to make it such a powerful natural medicine.
For such a strongly scented herb it is not surprising that it produces a potent and widely used volatile oil. Mints usually produce around 1% by volume of volatile oils and the composition of these oils can vary significantly between species and cultivars. Menthol, menthone and caervone are several of the main constituents that give all the mints their classic sweet, nose clearing properties. The individual varietal scents come from the presence and ratios of all the minor oils and flavenoids. The essential oils are usually produced by steam distillation which makes oil extraction relatively easy, safe and inexpensive.
Mint oils are a popular essential oil in aroma therapy and are produced in most countries. It is the oils, rather than the fresh leaves that are added to perfumes, personal cleaners and general cleaning products. They are also used in commercial cooking where a strong menthol taste is needed. The oil will give a sweet, clear taste to most foods without adding any calories.
One of the easiest way to use mint is as a tea that once made can be drunk, diluted or used as a topical medicine. A simple use is to make an extra strong tea using Mint menthol (high in the menthol scented oils) by placing an handful of leaves in a large glass jar and cover with about 500 ml of almost boiling water. Let it stand for 20 minutes then remove leaves and chill. This makes a great application to sunburn that will cool the skin, help cleanse the area and leave a pleasant fragrance on the skin. Apply with cotton balls then softly rub on fresh Aloe vera juice to reduce burning and help stop skin from peeling.