“As for the garden of mint,
the very smell of it alone recovers and refreshes our spirits,
as the taste stirs up our appetite for meat.”
– Pliny the Elder, ancient Rome
Family: Lamiaceae (the mint family)
Genus: Mentha (mint)
Species: spicata/viridis (spearmint), and piperita (peppermint)
Mint has been around a long, long time. It has been found at Egyptian burial sites dating to 1,000 B.C.. The ancient Hebrews would strew their synagogue floors with mint leaves so that their fragrance would scent and sanitize the air with each footstep. The word we use for it descends from the Latin word mentha, which is rooted in the Greek word minthe, and experts believe it probably derives from a now extinct pre-Greek language. Mint can mean one of over 18 species of the genus Mentha, or the entire, crowded family of Lamiaceae plants, which includes sage, rosemary, thyme, marjoram, savory and other species that share the quality of having accessible, beneficial and pleasing essential oils.
Known to have originated in Asia and the Mediterranean region, mint has been appreciated for its many benefits throughout history. Greeks used to clean their banquet tables with the herb and added it to their baths, while Romans used it in sauces, as an aid to digestion and as a daily breath freshener. And, as we know, “it” made it onto Charlemagne’s list of beneficial plants around 800 A.D. (see In The Garden of Charlemagne). But which mint was he referring to?
Charlemagne’s list actually says that the gardens at his royal estates must include both water mint and garden mint, which we know as spearmint. It does not list peppermint, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t have this mint that is considered the most flavorful and beneficial mint of them all.
Peppermint, history dutifully tells us, was discovered about 1700 A.D. when the English biologist, John Ray, discovered it in his garden. He “discovered” it instead of “created” or “cultivated” it because it made itself. When water mint (Menthae aquatica) and spearmint (Menthae spicata) are grown together, they often naturally cross-pollinate and the result is peppermint. That is, if an insect brings the pollen from water mint and pollinates the spearmint’s flower, that flower’s seeds will be peppermint, not spearmint and not water mint (and vice versa). Peppermint has likely been with us for much longer than three centuries, it simply didn’t have a name. And Charlemagne required all of the royal gardens in his estates to have both–perhaps he more rightly deserves the credit for peppermint’s actual and unheralded creation. There’s no telling now.
While both water mint and spearmint are less strong than peppermint in medicinal properties and culinary taste, they are nonetheless medicinal and tasty in the same ways as peppermint.
Medieval monks drew on the herb for its culinary and medicinal properties, using it to calm the stomach, freshen the air and even as a tooth polisher. It quickly became a symbol of hospitality and welcome throughout Europe.
The strong aromatic nature of the mint family come from their high levels of oils uncluding menthol, thymol, citronellal, limonene and carvacrol, which also explain its rich flavors, long prized in cooking and also responsible for many of its relaxing and cleansing medical properties which have been set out into four categories over the centuries:
- As a nervine for nervous system issues (anxiety, dementia, depression, headaches, insomnia).
- As a digestive for digestive system issues (indigestion, gas, cramps, nausea, colic).
- As an antimicrobial for the three types of infection issues (bacterial, viral, fungal).
- As a cleanse for respiratory issues (infection, congestion, asthma).
In the Middle Ages, aromatic herbs such as those in the mint family were used as strewing herbs in homes, literally tossed around onto the floor during times of sickness and plague to combat the evil we now know as microorganisms. Modern day research confirms the antimicrobial action of these plants for illnesses such as colds, influenza, pneumonia and bronchitis, just to name a few.
In the modern age it is still used for many things, perhaps as many as it was back then. It is a soothing tea for stomach aches, indigestion or heartburn. A breath freshener, a respiratory cleanse, and a treatment for headaches. As with all of the plants in the mint genus it retains its anti-infection, and anti-microbial qualities and of course, is great in deserts. Indeed, ancient Romans and Greeks used mint to flavor cordials and fruit compotes, and a nice mint julep sounds quite good right about now.