Herb Profiles: Mint

Mint Leaves

Fresh Mint Leaves

Fresh Mint

INTRODUCTION: Mints are known for their crisp clean flavors and are used in cooking, culinary fare and herbal medicines. The mint family contains upward of 24 true species but since there are hybrid varieties you can find at least 2000, if not more, main varieties.

HISTORICAL FACTS: Nearly every book on herbs includes information on mints. Convent gardens dating to the ninth century all grew mint and herbals.   Before the year 1700, almost all writers spoke of garden mint as spearmint. Peppermint is not mentioned in any work prior to 1696 when the English botanist John Ray first described it. This is because peppermint is actually a hybrid and did not appear, under cultivation until sometime in the mid to late 17th century.   Commercial cultivation of peppermint began in the 1750s in Surrey, a county in southeastern England.

HORTICULTURAL FACTS: Most mints will grow almost anywhere except in hot direct son. They do best, however in a light, moderately rich soil that is moist and in shade or partial shade. They are the easiest herbs to grow. In their native or naturalized haunts in Europe and North America they are often found flourishing near streams.

These herbs are known for spreading rapidly by underground runners and can be propagated very simply by layering, division, or stem Cuttings. When grown in the home garden it needs to be planted in a confined spot because it’s underground stems readily invade nearby areas and they’ll take over suitable habitats. They’re invasive nature can be contained by planning in pots or boxes, or sinking header boards 6 to 8 inches into the ground around the roots. Keep flowers pinched back to encourage bushy growth.

While mints are a perennial, the above ground growth dies down in the winter. Pieces of root can be placed out in early spring usually about 2 inches apart and about 2 inches deep. In autumn when the plant begins to fade it is best to cut the foliage all the way to the ground.

Coming in many varieties with a fascinating range of flavors and fragrances mints are readily available to home gardeners. Some mints, such as apple and orange types, have fruity overtones. The most common gardening mint is spearmint. Both spearmint and peppermint are widely used all over the world.

Spearmint is native to the Mediterranean, however it is common in Britain. The Romans probably introduced spearmint into Britain. It is the commonest gardening and commercial variety, but there are many varieties that differ in color of the leaves and stems. The classification is difficult because this species easily cross breeds creating hybrid varieties. This leads to confusion-even the well-known peppermint is a hybrid and not a distinct species. Mints are very flavorful and are influenced by the soils and climate in which they are grown. Propagate before they go to seed by Stem cuttings, root divisions or layering

Of the two most common varieties, peppermint has the sharper, more pungent flavor; it goes into candy and toothpaste, more delicate Spearman is used for jelly and sauces. They all have a refreshing cool sweet flavor. Peppermint although often named as a separate species, is today, thought to be a hybrid.  There are cultivated varieties usually referred to as black peppermint and white peppermint which is reputed to have better flavor. Climate and soil or also influence the final flavor.

GROWING GUIDELINES: This herb can be forced in glass houses during the winter.  A hardy perennial that is hardy to -20°F. Typically grows to a height of 1-3 feet. The soil should be rich and moist.  The plants prefers shade or partial shade. Select varieties at your local garden center.  You can propagate the plants from cuttings.

Mint Culinary Uses

CULINARY FACTS: The highly viable essential oils get Mint distinctive flavors and fragrances, such as those of pineapple mint, apple mint, and even chocolate mint. They tend to be underrated as culinary herbs. Fresh or dried mint, mint sauce, or mint jelly always goes well with lamb. Try using it instead of basil in your favorite pesto recipe. It is particularly tasty with Vietnamese spring rolls. This herb is an often forgotten ingredient in salads; finally chop leaves of any flavor to create a tasty high note.  In recent years mint jelly has become popular as well as mint butter.

Peppermint and spearmint, make some of the best herbal teas served iced or hot. Add sprigs of leaves to any iced tea. Fresh peppermint or spearmint makes an excellent sun tea.

For mint sun tea take a full handful of leaves, twisting or bruising them to release the essential oils, then place them in a gallon jar in the sun for about 30 min., Add ice as a refreshing summertime beverage.

It is a great addition to desserts, complementing a wide range of chocolate desserts; either incorporated into the dish as a flavoring or used his garnish. Choose pineapple or apple mint for a particular tangy sorbet. It is well known that these herbs are used in every category of candy making.

Mint has been used as a flavoring since antiquity. The Romans introduced spearmint and mint sauces to Britain. English cooking uses the herb as its main flavoring herb with new potatoes and green peas, as well as in mint sauce for lamb or mutton. Frenchmen who in my experience have rarely tasted it do not appreciate England mint sauce.  In France, it is not generally used in any of the great classical dishes; but in Spain and Italy it is common enough although there are so many other herbs to choose.  From a culinary standpoint it does not combine well with garlic. In all the countries of the Middle East, Mint is a common flavoring, as it also is in India. Mint, for instance is ground with Coconut and forms the basis of chutneys, which will also contain onion, green chili, green mango and other substances.

On the whole, it does not blend in easily with other herbs although it is combined with additional herbs in a few fish stuffing’s. It goes well with Duck and orange or with the two together; with mutton, but rarely with other Meats; with vegetables, such as potatoes, peas, beans, lentils, cucumber, tomatoes, carrots and mushrooms, it can be excellent. It goes with many fruits-apples and gooseberries for instance-and into fruit salads. Fruit drinks, and mint julep. It is also very commonly used to flavor tea, ranging from refreshing iced tea to the hot sweet milky mint flavored tea that is brewed in India.

Use mint fresh or dried in any number of different ways: add them to potpourri’s, lamb, and jelly; Spearmint is the best for garnishing iced drinks, fresh leaves of peppermint pineapple, apple and orange mints can be added to fruit cocktails or sprinkled over ice cream. Try cooking with flavorful types of mint such as peppermint, orange mint, apple mint, or chocolate mint.

Mint’s virtues, as a garnish and flavoring for beverages are well known. In addition, it is good for beef, veal and fish, as well as with lamb, and in both fruit and vegetable salads. Vegetables have an affinity for the herb including beans, carrots, eggplants, peas, potatoes and spinach. Cooking diminishes mint’s flavor, therefore add it shortly before cooking or serving. Crush the dried leaves to release the essential oils just before adding them to a dish.

A favorite alcoholic beverage of the Old South of the US is a mint julep. In Kentucky it was made by placing a bunch of peppermint leaves in Bourbon with water, taking care not to bruise the stems to impart bitterness into the drink.  A julep refers to a mixed drink flavored with mint.  It is a word that has been used for over 500 years.  Writers on the early travels in America described the practice in a 1787 issue of America Museum. “ The ordinary Virginian rises about six o’clock. He drinks a julep made of rum, water, and sugar, but very strong.”   John Davis, in his travels in America-1803 observed, “The first thing he did on getting out of bed was to call for a mint julep. A dram of spirited liquor that has mint seeped in it. Taken by Virginians in the morning.” A traveler through Cincinnati in 1838 suggested drinking a mint julep before breakfast, during hailstorms at dinner and at night.

Over time juleps’ lost the morning association.

HARVESTING TIPS: Mint can be cut two or three times each year leaving a few inches of stem to grow back. The harvested leaves can be used fresh or you can strip off the leaves and dry in a drying rack or in a low heat oven. Additionally you can hang small bunches in a dry, dark location and strip the leaves off later. It is also suitable for quick freezing.

FLAVOR:

Orange mint: grows to 2 feet high and has broad dark green 2-inch leaf that is edged with purple.  They taste and smell slightly of orange combined with the characteristic minty aroma.  The blossoms are lavender and the flowers form atop spikes during midsummer. The stems of these spikes are reddish purple and nearly round.

Golden apple mint: has smooth deep green leaves variegated in yellow. The plant grows to about to six inches and makes an attractive groundcover where taller spring flowering bulbs are planted.

Peppermint: Its flavor is familiar to many people.  The plant grows to 3 feet high and has strongly scented 3 inch leaves with toothed edges. Small purple flowers appear in 1 to 3 inch long spikes at the ends of stands. Peppermint is a perennial, but its leaves and stems die down each fall. The leaves are egg shaped and usually nearly hairless with purple stands.

Corsican mint: A creeping mint variety that rarely grows over 1 inch high. It has tiny, round, bright green leaves that form a dense mat. In summer, small, light purple flowers appear, and it has a delightful minty or sage like fragrance when bruised or crushed underfoot.

Apple mint: Has stiff stems that grow 20 to 30 inches high. The leaves are slightly hairy and gray green about 1 to 3 inches long. The purplish white flowers are produced in 2 to 3 inch spikes.  Apple mint’s leaves are quite fuzzy or hairy.  The leaves, when crushed, have an apple like taste, as the name implies. Its leaves have mostly parallels sides with a broadly rounded base

Curly Mint: Much taller than most mint plants. Bright green leaves with curled edges.  Has an aroma similar to spearmint.  This mint is a very aggressive grower.

Spearmint: is another of the familiar species and is the one used commonly with roast lamb and in mint jelly. Its dark green leaves are slightly smaller than those of peppermint. The stems Grow 1-1/2 to 2 feet high if not pinched back.  Spearmint was originally a native of Europe but is now naturalized around the world.

Pineapple mint: is a robust plant with a distinct fruity odor that is reminiscent of pineapple. The leaves are up to 1-1/2 inches in length. Pineapple mint grows to a height of 20 to 30 inches. The variegated rounded leaves are slightly hairy. Small purplish white flowers are produced on 2 to 3 inch spikes.

Mint Medicinal Uses

MEDICINAL FACTS:

Ancient medicine recommended using the leaves of the herb for bites of mad dogs, to prevent indigestion and to cure mouth and gum ailments in the preparation for ulcers, to heal skin disorders and to stimulate the appetite. Some of the uses proved to be ill advised but some of the information is right on.

However by the 1720s Peppermint became the herb of choice for medicinal use, given its stronger action to calm the stomach. Today’s herbalist finds many uses of spearmints and peppermints.  These herbs are a common flavoring used in chewing gum and mouthwashes.  Peppermint oil contains menthol, which has an antiseptic action and causes the sensation of coldness some medicinal preparations.