For many people, the mention of mint conjures images of candy canes and chewing gum, but the uses of fragrant, useful and easy-growing mint extend far beyond the candy counter. Among the easiest plants in the world to grow, aromatic mint is a lovely and low-maintenance perennial to grow indoors or outdoors. In the kitchen, mint makes an excellent addition to recipes and uplifting teas. And long-time favorites in the medicine chest, peppermint and spearmint are rich in compounds that may help alleviate indigestion and gastrointestinal concerns, improve breathing, treat gallstones and combat viruses.
A Brief History of Mint
Although it very likely began even earlier, human use of peppermint has been recorded since ancient Greece. According to Greek legend, mint was originally a nymph named Minthe; she was transformed into a plant when Persephone—the goddess of spring, and later of the underworld—became jealous of her husband Pluto’s interest in Minthe. Unable to reverse the spell cast by his wife, Pluto gave Minthe a delightful scent that filled the senses whenever anyone walked upon her in the garden. Varieties of mint grow around the world. Along with Europe and the Mediterranean, mint has a long history of use in the Middle East and North America.
The 25 types of mint include well-known peppermint and spearmint as well as more exotic varieties such as apple mint, orange mint, chocolate mint and many other hybrids. You don’t need a green thumb to grow mint, although you may have one after harvesting it thanks to its rich chlorophyll content. Mint’s invasive nature makes it among the easiest plants to grow. In fact, if you want to confine mint to one section of your garden, you may want to plant it in a container at least 15 inches deep and then bury it in the ground; mint grows thick stems that connect underground, spreading throughout any garden space and overtaking neighboring plants. Mints will also grow happily indoors in pots—just be sure to choose a large pot to give the plant room to spread.
Mint prefers a cool, moist spot but can easily grow in full sun if watered regularly. If it is growing in indoor potting soil, mint should have sufficient nutrients for a few months. Fertilize mint plants using about half of the amount suggested on the package of organic fertilizer for indoor plants.
Harvesting and Using Mint
Pluck mint leaves off plants as needed, or snip sprigs about an inch above the soil. To dry mint, cut off sprigs an inch above the soil, wash, dry, bundle together (no more than an inch thick), and hang upside down in a dark, dry place. Once dry, pull the leaves off the stems and store them in an airtight container for up to a year.
Tasty treat: When cooking, add chopped mint to vegetable dishes, rice bowls, fruit or vegetable salads, and soups (especially gazpacho). Mint is great with lamb dishes.
Breath booster: If you’ve ever felt mint seemed to improve your breathing, you’d be right. Research shows that peppermint’s rosmarinic acid blocks inflammatory compounds called leukotrienes and encourages the body to make prostacyclins, which open airways and improve breathing. Peppermint has also been shown to alleviate nasal congestion linked to colds and allergies. Drink peppermint tea for this purpose.
Cold killer: Dominion Herbal College in Burnaby, British Columbia, recommends a strong mint and elder tea to promote perspiration and fend off oncoming colds and flus. To make this traditional remedy, steep 1 tablespoon each peppermint leaves and elder flowers in hot water. Drink 1/2 to 1 cup every 30 to 45 minutes at the first sign of a cold or flu, until you start perspiring. Then take 2 tablespoons every 1 to 2 hours until your fever breaks or your symptoms improve.
Sinus aid: Peppermint can help with sinusitis. If your sinuses feel congested, rub a drop or two of peppermint essential oil on your temples. (Be careful not to get it in your eyes; it will burn.)
Tummy tamer: Sip on a cup of peppermint tea to alleviate nausea, vomiting and digestive upset.
Stone savior: Thanks to the compound borneol found in numerous varieties of mint, James Duke, botanist and author of The Green Pharmacy, recommends using his “Stone Tea” to aid in the removal of gallstones (along with any prescribed medical treatment). To make Stone Tea, he suggests mixing as many different types of mint as you have available, but especially peppermint and spearmint, with a teaspoon of cardamom, brewing as tea and drinking frequently.
Herpes helper: According to research by John Heinerman, a doctor of medical anthropology and author of Heinerman’s Encyclopedia of Healing Herbs & Spices, peppermint battles viruses, making it a good choice in dealing with the herpes virus. The herpes simplex virus comes in two main forms: cold sores and genital herpes. Herpes zoster is linked to chicken pox and shingles. Heinerman recommends 2 cups of hot peppermint tea daily during herpes outbreaks to alleviate symptoms or shorten the duration of outbreaks. Once in the body the herpes virus is always present, but it can remain dormant. Occasionally drinking peppermint tea can help reduce the chances of an outbreak.
To make mint tea, use 1 teaspoon dried herb per cup of hot water. Mint’s natural oils are best extracted in hot, but not boiling, water. Let steep for 10 minutes.
Peppermint Salt Body Scrub
Use this scrub to improve circulation and promote healthy skin. Unrefined sea salt is full of skin-healing minerals, the essential oils eliminate harmful microbes and alleviate blemishes, and the olive oil helps moisturize the skin.
• 20 drops peppermint essential oil or 2 tablespoons dried herb, finely ground
• 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
• 1/2 cup finely ground, unrefined sea salt
1. In a small bowl, mix essential oil or dried herb with olive oil and sea salt. Pour into a jar to store.
2. To use, massage the scrub into damp skin. Rinse and pat skin dry.
Note: Essential oil is not the same as extract or fragrance oil. Choose a high-quality “food grade” or “pharmaceutical grade” essential oil, which should be stated on the package.
Natural Tooth Powder
Peppermint essential oil helps freshen breath, kill bacteria and clear sinuses. Myrrh oil is highly antibacterial and antifungal. Baking soda restores a natural, slightly alkaline pH balance to the teeth and gums.
• 1/2 cup baking soda
• 10 drops peppermint essential oil
• 5 drops pure myrrh essential oil (optional)
1. Mix ingredients in a small jar with a lid, cover, and shake well.
2. To use, dab a small amount on a damp toothbrush, as you would use toothpaste.
—Recipes adapted with permission from Weekend Wonder Detox by Michelle Schoffro Cook (Da Capo, April 2014).
Michelle Schoffro Cook is the international best-selling author of 60 Seconds to Slim and the recently released Weekend Wonder Detox.