MINT (Mentha piperita – Labiatae)
The numerous varieties and hybrids of mint, about 20 in all, are native to the Mediterranean area and Western Asia, but now grow in temperate climates all round the world. Mints include water, corn, horse, eau de cologne and spearmint varieties, but Mentha piperita, pepper¬mint – thought to be a hybrid between water mint and spearmint ¬is the one used in therapy.
As with all members of the Labiatae, mints are characterized by their square stems; they have paired leaves, and small flowers in summer, ranging from purple to white. The leaves and hairy stems contain the oil glands. Mints can be propagated by seed, but can also swiftly take over a herb bed by creeping underground root systems. Mints are perennial, dying down in the winter.
Mints were well known to the ancients: from hieroglyphics dedicated to the god Horus in the temple of Edfu, we learn that mint was used in a ritual perfume. There are several references to mint in the Bible, and in Greek and Roman mythology and poetry. The name itself comes from the myth of the nymph Minthe, as told by Ovid, who was surprised by Persephone in the arms of her husband Pluto; she was metamorphosed into a herb to be trampled underfoot (probably M. pulegium, or pennyroyal, which has a creeping habit). Hippocrates, in his medical treatise on plants, mentioned mint for its diuretic and stimulant properties. Galen thought of it as an aphrodisiac; others suggested the opposite, that it diminished sexual appetite. The Romans looked upon mint as a carminative, helping flatulence and the digestion of heavy foods.
Peppermint was not discovered in Britain until 1696, in Hertfordshire, and thereafter it was cultivated, particularly at Mitcham in Surrey. Mitcham mint is as famous as its lavender, and it was soon included in the English pharmacopoeia and many other national codices.
In modern therapy, many practitioners, doctors and scientists have confirmed the therapeutic values of mint as being stomachic, carminative and antispasmodic, a tonic and stimulant; as being good for nervous disorders, nervous vomiting, flatulence and colitis (Dr Leclerc). Dr Cazin prescribed it successfully for intestinal problems, and for liver and kidney deficiencies. It is especially recommended for old people for its digestive values, and for convalescence, fatigue and anaemia.
The USA is the largest producer of mint essential oil, followed by eastern countries and Japan. The oils most favoured for their aroma are those produced from the Mitcham mint and a variety grown in the south of France, known as ‘Franco-Mitcham’ mint. Japanese essential oil is less agreeable to connoisseurs as it has a strong camphory note, being utilized mainly for the extraction of menthol.
MINT ESSENTIAL OIL
Description: Peppermint is defined as black (with purple stems) or white. The leaves and flowers are picked just before maturity when the essential oil content is at its greatest, and steam distilled. The oil is colourless or of a very pale yellow. The smell has an agreeable freshness, strong, penetrating, giving that feeling of being able to breathe deeply. Fresh, the oil is very fluid, but it thickens and darkens as it ages.
The principal constituents: The main constituent is menthol, approxi¬mately 40-70 per cent, but this depends on the plant, the soil, the country of origin. Menthol is a very unusual substance, white and crystalline, which causes a sensation of cold in the mouth. Other constituents are, depending on the plant, 20-30 per cent carvone, cineol, limonene, menthone, pinene and thymol, traces of aldehydes, and acetic and valerianic acids.
Other mints are distilled for their oils. M. pulegium or pennyroyal, which is the creeping variety found all over Europe, has a ketone, pulegone, as its principal constituent. M. spicata, or spearmint, is distilled mostly in the USA: its oil is rich in carvone. Another US mint, M. citrata or eau de cologne mint, an offspring of peppermint, contains linalool and linalyl acetate.
Dangers: Take care when using mint essential oil. Observe the following guidelines:
Never use mint oil undiluted, as it could provoke a bad reaction.
Never use mint oil as a bath essence on its own.
Never rub the oil on its own over the entire body. Because of the menthol, you will feel like a block of ice, and that could be dangerous.
Don’t use mint oil at night as it could keep you awake.
Avoid using mint remedies in conjunction with homoeopathic remedies. Mint acts as an antidote.
In illness and beauty
The essential oil is good for the nervous system, acting as a regulator and sedative; menthol is well known as a cardiac tonic in pharmaceutical preparations.
It is a good blood cleanser, because it is antiseptic and antibacterial.
Drink mint tea often if you have acne or spots. A tea is good, too, if you feel nauseous: add 30 ml (2 tbsp) chopped fresh or dried mint leaves to 600 ml (1 pint) boiling water, leave to infuse for 5 minutes, and add honey if desired.
For bruises and swellings, mix up an oil made from 20 ml (4 tsp) soya oil and 15 drops of mint oil and apply immediately. Repeat a few times over the next few hours.
If you have swollen gums, mouth thrush or mouth ulcers, mix together 10ml (2 tsp) cognac or whisky, 5 drops mint oil and 300ml (1/2 pint) hot boiled water. Gargle with this several times throughout the day until finished, leaving the liquid in the mouth as long as possible each time.
If you have a toothache, mint is a sovereign remedy. Put a few drops of the neat oil on a piece of cotton wool and place on the tooth. It acts as an analgesic and anaesthetic – those wonderful menthol properties – and you will feel relief from the pain. The antiseptic properties of the oil will help disinfect the cavity as well. But don’t forget to go to the dentist.
If your shoes are too small, or you suffer from swollen ankles, mix 10 drops of mint oil and 10 ml (2 tsp) grape seed oil, and rub into the soles of your feet before putting on your socks or stockings, tight shoes or boots. This is especially effective if you are going dancing, or have to stand for a long time. Don’t forget to wash your hands well with soap afterwards.
(See also abdominal pains, anorexia nervosa, colic, coughing, cramp, dysmenorrhoea, stings and bites and stress.)
Peppermint is rarely cooked, but mint has been used as a raw flavouring since antiquity – the Romans introduced spearmint and mint sauce for lamb to Britain. Mint is famously digestive: ‘The smell of mint stirs up the mind and appetite, to a greedy desire for food’, according to Pliny. Sprigs of mint are traditional too with new potatoes, peas and many vegetable dishes; leaves also flavour jellies, ice creams, stuffing’s and fruit dishes. Mint is used a great deal in Middle Eastern and Indian cooking, combined with yoghurt and coconut in relishes and chutneys, and in the famous cracked wheat salad, tabbouleh. Mint mixed with Chinese green tea leaves makes the famous mint tea of Morocco. Many refreshing summer drinks are enlivened by fresh mint, most notably mint juleps; mint liqueurs like Creme de Menthe are well known too. A strong decoction of fresh mint will make the most delicious home-made peppermint creams.
Mint essential oils are used widely in pharmaceuticals – in toothpastes, mouthwashes, massage cream – and menthol is even used in conjunction with tobacco in cigarettes.