Spearmint (mentha viridis); Peppermint (mentha piperita); Pennyroyal (mentha pulegium)
Each month during 2016, my Herb Picks will be accompanied by a great story that has come down to us through the centuries, as well as some useful growing information. These are herbs that can be grown in our area, and are found in the Arbor Gate Herb House throughout the year. Needless to say, not all herbs are available during every season, so keep a list handy of those you want to add to your herb collection.
The botanical name mentha is derived from the mythological origin ascribed to it. Mentha was originally a nymph, who, because of her love for Pluto, was turned into the plant mint by the jealous Persephone, Pluto’s wife. The Ancients scoured their tables with this herb when preparing banquets of honor the gods. Mint is also a bee herb, and according to the old stories, the gods grew huge fields of mint for bees to use for the purpose of making honey, virtually the only sweetener of ancient times.
The three main forms of mint have various associations with ancient times. For example, the world’s oldest surviving text, the “Ebers Papyrus,” mentions the use of peppermint as a stomach soother. And peppermint was one of the plants mentioned in recipes for liturgical perfumes found on the walls of the Temple of Horus at Edfou in Egypt.
Mint spread from Egypt to Palestine, where it was accepted as payment for taxes. This particular use for mint is recorded in the Bible in Luke (11.39), which says, “you pay tithes of mint and rue…but you have no care for justice and love of God.”
Greek and Roman housewives added mint to milk to prevent it from spoiling. They served mint after meals as an aid to digestion. Both the Chinese and the Ayurvedic physicians of India used mint as a digestive aid, as a tonic and as a treatment for coughs, colds and fevers. In both ancient Greece and Rome peppermint adorned the tables of feasts and people crowned themselves with peppermint. Peppermint was also used to flavor wine and was added to bath water for its restorative properties.
Mint cultivation in our climate is very easy, even for beginning herb growers. It spreads vigorously by stolons, however, which are fast-growing underground stems, so should be confined to containers.
Mints may be planted virtually any time during the year, but they decline during the hottest months. At that time, they can be cut down to ground level and placed in a shady spot until cool weather returns. They must be kept watered, however, and fertilizing with a slow-release organic fertilizer like Arbor Gate Blend will revive them quickly in the Fall.
Keep in mind that in spite of the plethora of named mints, there are only three discrete species, each with its own oil: peppermint, spearmint, and pennyroyal (which isn’t used for culinary purposes but makes a good ground cover for shade). The only variety that contains both peppermint and spearmint oils is Doublemint ‘Madalene Hill’ (also known as redstemmed apple mint.) This variety is especially prized for culinary purposes thanks to the subtle complexity of its combined oils.