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2011
MHS Herb of the Year
- Mint

A Medley of Mint
By Bonnie Kulke and Carrie B. Wilkey

Mint is a member of the Labiatae (aka Lamiaceae) family of flowering plants which has over 160 genera includingA Medley of Mint Cookbook most of the herbs like basil, lavender, sage, hyssop, horehound, lemon balm, sage, rosemary and thyme. Mint is an ancient culinary herb that has been gathered in the wild and cultivated since Neolithic times. The mint family is a large group consisting of some 600+ varieties, and is very popular in many parts of the world.

Mint growers of America grow Scotch spearmint or Black Mitchum peppermint for the essential oils for use in medicines, culinary uses, cigarettes, cosmetics, toiletries, and of course candy and gum. Approximately 43,000 acres of peppermint are grown in Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Oregon and Washington, yielding an average of 50 pounds of oil per acre in recent years.

The number of mint farmers has dropped, but large-scale growers continue to provide quality mint oil to industry. North Judson, Indiana is the Mint Oil Capital of the Midwest and holds an annual mint festival, including a cooking contest. The festival takes place Father’s Day weekend every year.

History and Folklore of Mint

Recorded uses of mint are found in the Ebers papyrus, the worlds’ oldest surviving medical text (Egypt 1550 BC). Frequent mention is made of it in the Bible, for example, as the Pharisees collected tithes in mint, dill and cumin. Jewish synagogues used mint as a strewing herb on the floor along with rosemary and thyme to emit pleasant aroma when tread upon. By medieval times, housewives were strewing mint in the kitchen and sick room to cover bad aromas.

Mint eventually became the symbol of hospitality. Roman poet Ovid wrote about two peasants who scoured their serving board with mint before feeding their guests who turned out to be the Roman gods Jupiter and Mercury. Romans flavored wine and sauces with it as well.

It was an ancient Roman custom to end a meal with a sprig of mint for digestion and fresh breath, which has culminated in today’s “after dinner mints.”

In Greek mythology Pluto loved a water nymph named Minthe, but when his jealous wife found out Minthe was turned into the green herb that is trod underfoot. It is an old legend that “to grow mint in the garden will attract money to your purse.”

In the Middle Ages, the scent of mint was believed to prevent people from losing their tempers, while the Romans consumed mint in the belief that it would increase their intelligence. All kinds of mint were used as food and medicine during medieval times. Mint vinegar was used as a mouthwash and mint sauce was said to restore the appetite. Often used to cure stomach ailments, mint was also used to reduce fevers and in treating wounds.

Popular Types of Mint

The most common types of mint are peppermint, spearmint, pennyroyal, apple mint, orange mint, pineapple mint, chocolate mint, Corsican mint, curly leaf mint, wild Horsemint and Bergamot mint. The following is a brief introduction to some of the mints you might find at your local farmer’s market, or in plant catalogs. Consider growing and using other types of mints, too.

  • Apple Mint (Mentha suaveolns)
    Apple mint is one of the tallest mints growing from 24-36-inches tall. It has fuzzy, light green leaves and stems. When the leaves are crushed, they give off a spearmint and apple aroma. It has pink to lavender flowers that appear in the fall. Apple mint is ideal for culinary uses, especially tea. Only use the leaves in foods. Apple mint has a subtler flavor than other mints, so it is good for flavoring drinks, sauces, jellies, fruit, meat and chicken dishes. Due to its hairy leaves, apple mint is not recommended as a garnish.
  • Blue Balsam Mint (Mentha x piperita)
    This mint was introduced from Europe and grows about 24-inches in height, but is also considered an ideal groundcover. Its leaves are deep green, edged with purple. Balsam mint has pink flowers that emerge during the summer months. It has a strong mint flavor with a hint of Pennyroyal and is ideal as a culinary, aromatic and cosmetic herb and often brewed as a tea.
  • Candy Mint (Mentha x piperita)
    Candy mint is a cross between water mint and spearmint. It grows to heights between 12 and 18 inches, with toothed leaves measuring up to 3-1/2 inches long. Candy mint blooms in mid-summer with purple-pink flowers. Along with peppermint, Candy Mint is most commonly used in chewing gum, mouthwash, toothpastes and medicines. Candy mint is an ideal culinary herb to flavor foods like jellies, sweets, meats, salads, soups, beverages and much more. It has long been used as a medicinal herb.
  • Chocolate Mint (Mentha piperita piperita)
    Chocolate mint has shiny dark green leaves with brown veins. These leaves are smaller than other varieties of mint, and when you rub the leaves between your fingers, you get the heavenly scent of chocolate mint. This variety grows 12-18 inches tall and has violet or lavender flowers throughout the growing season. To keep the leaves from getting bitter, cut off the flowers before they bloom. If you want to attract bees and butterflies, let the flowers bloom. Chocolate mint has a peppermint patty flavor that is a nice addition to desserts, beverages, syrups and more. It may be used fresh or dried.
  • Corsican Mint (Mentha requienii)
    Because of its tiny leaves, Corsican mint may serve as a ground cover or be placed among rocks and paving stones. It is hardy to 10 degrees F. For a tiny plant, it has a very strong fragrance, especially when walked upon. Historically, Corsican mint was used to flavor crème de menthe. It has pink flowers in mid-summer, but rarely flowers in our Wisconsin climate.
  • Curly Leaf Mint (Mentha spicata ‘crispata’)
    Curly leaf mint is a variety of spearmint and grows about 18-inches in height. It has curly spearmint-flavored leaves. Curly leaf mint is valued more for its curled, fringed leaves than for its fragrance. This variety makes a pretty garnish, but isn’t as flavorful as other mints. See spearmint for additional information.
  • Egyptian Mint (Mentha niliaca)
    Egyptian mint has a similar flavor to apple mint and is thought to be the same mint variety mentioned in the Bible. It grows 12-24-inches in height and has large leaves with a strong mint scent and taste. This variety is most used as a culinary herb and as a refreshing tea.
  • Ginger Mint (Mentha x gentilis)
    Ginger mint is a hybrid between Mentha arvensis and Mentha spicata, growing to about 18-inches in height. It has small, light green leaves that are slightly variegated with golden yellow stripes running through the leaves. Its distinctive flavor makes a nice tea. Dried leaves are often used in potpourris. Fresh leaves make an attractive and colorful garnish. Ginger mint makes a tasty seasoning for fruit and vegetables.
  • Grapefruit Mint (Mentha suaveolens x piperita)
    Grapefruit mint grows to about 18-inches in height and has fruit-scented, large leaves. It flowers in late summer to early fall with blue-violet flowers. Like most mints, this variety is very attractive to bees, birds and butterflies. Fresh leaves taste like unsweetened grapefruit and is a nice flavoring in iced tea or as an edible garnish.
  • Lime Mint (Mentha x piperita)
    Lime mint has light green leaves with a slight mulberry coloring and grows 12-18 inches in height. It has pinkish-purple flowers in the summer. Lime mint is slightly more tender than other varieties of mint and in Wisconsin should be brought inside during the winter months. Lime mint is similar to orange mint, but with a slightly different scent and flavor. The Lebanese dry the leaves and finely crush them through a strainer. The crushed mint is then sprinkled on salads, used to make tea, or to season vegetable dishes.
  • Orange Mint (Mentha aquatica ‘Citrata’)
    Orange mint is similar to other peppermints with dark reddish to purple stems with dull, but deep green, egg-shaped leaves. This variety grows to about 24-inches in height. Orange mint has a heavy Bergamot scent and citrus aroma. It is high in vitamins A and C, and fresh leaves are often used in salads, vinegars, desserts, beverages, and garnishes. Distilled orange mint oil is often used in perfume and Chartreuse liquor. Also known as Bergamot Mint and Eau de cologne.
  • Peppermint (Mentha piperita)
    Peppermint is the classic source of mint essential oil and grows about 24 inches in height. It has longer leaves than spearmint, and purple stems. This variety grows quickly. Highest in menthol content, peppermint makes a very good disinfectant, as well as a culinary herb. Its leaves have a very cool, clean and refreshing taste. Peppermint is the most commercially used variety of mints. You’ll find it in alcoholic beverages, toothpaste, soap, mouthwash, chewing gum and more. Peppermint makes an excellent flavoring for ice cream, chocolates and other desserts. Consider using peppermint in salads, soups, beverages and other foods.
  • Pineapple Mint (Mentha suaveolens ‘variegata’)
    Pineapple mint is a cultivar of apple mint but leaves are variegated with white. It grows about 24 inches in height. See apple mint for additional information.
  • Scotch Mint (Mentha x gracillis)
    Also known as ginger mint, red mint and Scotch Spearmint. This variety grows about 24 inches in height and is a more variegated, golden form of mint. Leaves are used fresh as a flavoring, especially with fruit. Commercially, Scotch mint is used in toothpastes, chewing gum and pharmaceutical products. See ginger mint for more information.
  • Silver Mint (Mentha spicata cv.)
    Silver mint is a variety of spearmint growing 12-24 inches in height. Leaves are a silvery grey often used in flavoring tea and salads. This variety also makes a good groundcover.
  • Spearmint (Mentha spicata)
    Spearmint was brought to the New World by the Pilgrims and has a lighter flavor than peppermint. In the language of herbs, spearmint is “refreshment”. This variety grows 12-24 inches in height and has lavender flowers. Culinary uses include teas and other beverages, chutney, salads, desserts, seasoning vegetables and much more.

Growing Requirements and Care of Mint

Mint is one of the easiest and hardiest herbs to grow and can be quite invasive if not contained. It is often found in moist soils in ditches and waste places when growing wild.

All varieties of mint are herbaceous perennials. Beware that mints hybridize easily and should not be planted near each other. Likewise, seeds are not reliable and it is best to get plants from a reliable grower, or through plant divisions in early spring or fall.

The most identifying feature of the mint plant is its square stems. Tiny purple, white or pink flowers appear on plants in whorls, in terminal spikes during July and August. The leaves are opposite, simple, toothed and very fragrant.

Mints grow under a broad range of conditions, but do best in moist, well-drained, rich soil, and in full sun to partial shade. Most are hardy in the Madison, Wisconsin area (Zone 4-5). These plants are notorious for their spreading, invasive growth habits and their runners should be contained with sunken barriers (10 or more inches deep) or grown in containers. They do wonderfully in pots on your deck as long as they are watered regularly.

Plants should be placed 12-18 inches apart. Frequent cutting will keep plants looking their best. Prune mint back after flowering to prevent seed formation and clip back new growth to encourage branching.

In late fall cut plants back to the ground. This will eliminate over-wintering sites for mint pests. To renew plants, move to fresh soil every 4-5 years. In late fall, cover the plant with 1-2 inches of compost or aged manure for protection and to give a healthy start in the spring. Mint makes a good companion plant for cabbage family vegetables because it repels black flea beetle, ants and cabbage caterpillar. It is also good for tomatoes. Set a container of mint by roses as repellent to aphids.

Mint Pests and Diseases

Mint is particularly susceptible to mint rust, which appears as orange spots on the back of leaves. Rust is most likely to infect plants growing in shade. If your mint gets rust, try cutting back the mint and replanting it in a new location. Do not place diseased plants or leaves in your compost.

Harvesting and Preserving Mint

Mint may be harvested almost as soon as it comes up in the spring. The young tender leaves yield the best flavor. As with most herbs, pick leaves mid-morning, when the dew has dried, but before it gets too hot. Harvesting of mint may continue into the fall. Fresh leaves are always better than dried, but mint leaves may be also be dried or frozen.

Harvest leaves often to keep your plant robust. Use the top 3-5 leaves of each branch in cooking, the rest are stronger and more aromatic. Use these for tea and potpourri by drying for winter use and don’t forget mint cuttings are beautiful in floral bouquets.

Hang mint in small bunches in a dark, airy place until crispy dry. Or you may dry your mint in a food dehydrator or microwave if you need to quickly dry it.

To freeze mint, dip it in boiling water for a few seconds and then plunge it into cold water. Shake off excess water and pack lightly in containers and freeze. Use mint immediately after thawing at room temperature.

Culinary Uses for Mint

The culinary uses for mint include refreshing hot or cold teas, mint sauces, mint vinegar, simple syrup, jelly and mint juleps. Add fresh mint leaves to new potatoes, peas, fruit salads, drinks and punches, summer cold soups, fish, yogurt dressing, mix with chocolate, bake in cookies, breads and cakes. A delicious Near East salad combines spearmint, lettuce, chicory and a sesame seed dressing.

Add minty flavor to steamed vegetables by adding mint leaves to the water. Freeze mint leaves in ice cubes and use to flavor tea or lemonade.

Medicinal Uses for Mint

Mint has been used for its medicinal properties for well over 3,000 years! Greek and Roman herbalists prescribed mint for everything from hiccups to leprosy. The English herbalist Nicholas Culpepper listed over 40 medical uses and wrote “Mint is very profitable for the stomach!”

The Pilgrims brought numerous herb and garden vegetable seeds to America, and among them were mint seeds and dried leaves. During their voyage to America, the Pilgrims often mixed mint with other herbs to calm seasickness.

During the Middle Ages, people used mint to ward off disease and carried mint leaves in their purses to attract wealth and love. They also thought burning dried mint leaves helped induce a peaceful sleep. Dried leaves were also used for strewing throughout the house to reduce odors and insects.

During World War I when traditional drugs were in short supply, a resurgence of herbal healing began and mint or garlic was often part of first aid kits. Today, herbal remedies continue to make a revival as many patients look to alternative medicines. Always talk to your doctor before trying herbal alternatives.

Peppermint tea helps digestion and is a common home remedy for cold and flu symptoms because drinking frequent cups will promote perspiration and reduce fever. For relief of abdominal pains and gas, drink a peppermint-milk infusion.

In Mexico and the Southwest, spearmint tea is preferred as a general remedy for diarrhea, neuralgia, gargled as a mouthwash and used as an antiseptic on wounds and sores. Macerate spearmint and peppermint leaves in a carrier oil and massage area for migraine, facial neuralgia or rheumatic and muscular aches. When added to lotions, peppermint may help reduce pain and sensitivity.

Extracting Mint Oil

Extracting mint oil from mint leaves for use as a cooling agent or aromatherapy is fairly easy. You will need the following items: a Mason jar, mint leaves and stems, high-proof vodka or grain alcohol, fine sieve or cheesecloth, a knife and funnel.

First, finely mince fresh mint leaves. Put the leaves into the jar and fill it with 3 parts alcohol to 1 part leaves. Cap the jar and shake well. Leave the jar in a dark place for four to six weeks. Shake the jar every few days.

Pour the jar contents through the sieve into a clean bowl. Put the leaves into the cheesecloth and squeeze out any captured extract. Store the mint extract in small glass bottles in a cool dark place.

The mint oil may be used for problems with indigestion, cramps and respiration. The menthol in mint oil, specifically peppermint oil, causes a cooling sensation when applied to the skin. It may also be used as a massage oil to refresh the skin and as aromatherapy to invigorate mental senses.

Mint essential oil is antiseptic and antibacterial and may be mixed with water, vinegar, witch hazel and other cleaners to make an eco-friendly household cleaner.

Cosmetic Uses of Mint

Scent your bath water with mint for its refreshing, invigorating and stimulating properties. Add a few drops of peppermint oil to distilled water for a cooling wash and lotion for sensitive skin.

Use apple mint or spearmint as a soothing and gently cleansing herbal facial steam. Mints along with lavender, rosemary, calendula and lemon balm are great hair conditioners. Gauze pads dipped in peppermint tea make good eye refreshers and to minimize dark circles.

Cleaning with Mint

Because of mint’s antibacterial properties, it makes a great additive to cleaning products. Add a few drops of mint essential oil to a vinegar and water solution for cleaning windows, countertops and other surfaces throughout your home.

Mint is very useful in potpourri, herb bags and sachets not only for its pleasant fragrance but it has insect repellent properties and mice hate its aroma! Use in pet beds to deter fleas and strew in cupboards to repel ants.

In India and other hot climates, a mint bunch is hung in the doorway to freshen a room and give the impression of coolness.

Summary

Mint is well worth your time in the garden, in your kitchen, in your beauty routine and in your medicine chest. Have fun exploring all the new ways to use this hardy and prolific plant.