Don't let its unassuming look fool you: mint is one of the most versatile herbs out there
Mythological mint is the Swiss army knife of herbs, and has a long of history of interesting uses
Mint’s rambunctious quality is of mythological proportion. Literally. Pluto, married to Proserpine, fell in love with a nymph called Menthe. In a jealous rage, Proserpine stomped Menthe to the ground. Some scholars say Proserpine turned Menthe into a plant; others speculate it was the inspiration of Pluto, who wanted Menthe near him forever.
In this version of the story, he gifts Menthe with an irresistible fragrance to further annoy his spouse.
The History of Mint
Mint has long been used as a medicinal and aromatic herb. Ancient Egyptians used it to cure digestive upsets and freshen the breath. In medieval times, when baths were few and far between, mint was a strewing herb, with armloads of it thrown on floors. Introduced into England by the Romans, mint was scattered in churches to sweeten the air. Powdered mint was also used to whiten teeth.
The ritual of after-dinner mints carries on to this day; mint’s inclusion as an anti-spasmodic and calmative in modern-day pharmacopeias worldwide is testament to its efficacy. Culpeper’s Complete Herbal recommends mint for staunching wounds and easing headaches, as well as stirring up lust. It has long been regarded as a potent digestive aid, preventing nausea, “wind and vomiting.”
We are not quite sure what Nicolas Culpeper meant by mint being of use to “heal the chops in the fundament.” Perhaps he meant lamb chops? In any case, mint is both loved and used in Turkish, Greek, Indian and Vietnamese cooking. Persian cuisine includes mint throughout every course – from chicken to vegetables to desserts and frequently-served mint tea.
There is a mind-boggling array of botanical, common and quirky nicknames for mint. Available almost year-round in the garden and usually always at the market, mint adds unexpected and surprising dimensions, taste-wise, to a wide variety of foods.
Planting it makes you environmentally correct, too – mint attracts a plethora of beneficial and pollinating insects when it’s in bloom. These critters include syrphid (hover) flies, honeybees, bumblebees, lacewings and butterflies.
There is anecdotal evidence that mint repels aphids, flea beetles and cabbage moth. So, it can’t hurt to grow it near peas (freshly shelled peas with mint, anyone?), members of the cabbage family and roses. And after you finish gardening, what better way to reward yourself than a soak in a hot bath liberally laced with freshly gathered mint leaves?
Mint can be planted almost any time. It prefers dampish soil in shade or part shade, with protection from very hot sun. Use small-leafed varieties like Corsican mint between stepping/paving stones, too. Mint can get a bit straggly, so give it frequent haircuts.
Mint has the undeserved reputation of being “vigorous” (the nice way to say invasive). Lowly mint cannot be compared to the vigorousness of such botanical bullies as goutweed, lamium or bindweed. In fact, bergamot, apple and pineapple mints are practically tidy and well behaved.
In any case, all mint is easy to manage. Just pull it out where you don’t want it – share pieces (anything with a root on it will grow) with friends and neighbours. If you are not sure, plant mint in buckets or plastic nursery pots at least 25 cm (10 in.) deep and with the bottoms cut out; simply sink the whole works into the soil. That naughty mint will mostly stay put, with escapees easily weeded out.
Growing a myriad of mint brings aromatherapy to your back door. Brave readers might consider creating a mint “lawn”: allow mint to take over an area in dappled shade.
Just as it flowers, mow to grass-length, repeating to create thickness. Then, enjoy a barefoot walk on your mint carpet – much less expensive than a visit to the spa, and guaranteed to revitalize your spirit.
Different Types of Mint
Spearmint: mild and sweet, it is perfect for mint sauce or a calming tea.
Bergamot Mint: add to herb butter and lather on lemon loaf, toss into fruit salads. Create “mint water”: soak a cup of leaves in a litre of water, use the elixir to wash your face.
Ginger Mint: use for marinating lamb; grow it near where you sit, so you can reach over and tousle the leaves to release their fragrance.
Pineapple Mint or Apple Mint: a bit ho hum and the fuzzy leaves may not appeal in food, but it’s great in teas and cool drinks. Also grow it for the beneficial insects its flower spikes attract.