Mint: Medicinal Uses


| August/September 1997



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By Steven Foster

Mints are so well known that they hardly require description. We encounter their essential oils daily as flavoring for everything from toothpaste and chewing gums to alcoholic beverages and herbal teas. In minute, nearly undetectable quantities, they also enhance the flavor of many packaged foods.

Of the eighteen species and hundreds of varieties and cultivars of the genus Mentha, two stand out because of their medicinal uses: spearmint (M. spicata) and peppermint (M. ¥ piperita). Peppermint, a hybrid between water mint (M. aqua­tica) and spearmint, is the preeminent medicinal mint, easily distinguished from spearmint by its menthol fragrance. Carvone dominates the scent of spearmint.

Peppermint and Spearmint In History

In European phytomedicine today, peppermint leaf tea is used to treat indigestion, nausea, diarrhea, colds, headache and cramps.

Spearmint (identified in older writings as M. viridis or M. sativa) has a much longer history of medicinal use than peppermint. It was so commonly grown and used that it was rarely described in herbals; it is known to have been cultivated in every convent garden in Europe by the nineteenth century. A tea made from the leaves was considered useful for digestive upset, and The Edinburgh New Dispensatory (1789) recommended “Aqua mentha sativa” (spearmint water), made by lightly distilling spearmint leaves with three times their weight in water over low heat, as “a pres­ent and incomparable remedy for strengthening a weak stomach and curing vomiting proceeding from cold viscous phlegm.”

As early as 1704, however, Ray’s Historia Plantarum was touting “peper mint” (designated as M. palustris) as a superior mint for treating “stomach weakness” and diarrhea. By 1721, peppermint leaves had attained official status in the London Pharmacopoeia, although spearmint was still the medicinal mint of choice.

Peppermint’s popularity spread to the New World. One of the Shakers’ first medicinal preparations in the late 1700s at the Sabbathday Lake Shaker Community in Maine was a distilled peppermint water used as a digestive cordial. Samuel Stearn’s American Herbal (1801) listed this and other virtues:





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