Monday, July 28, 2014

Mint

Here's a question for you, Outlander Gardeners: 
What do mint, rosemary, oregano, lemon balm, basil, sage, hyssop, thyme, lavender, bee balm, catnip and coleus all have in common?

Answer: 
They are all members of the Mint family. (You get bonus points if you said that they all have square stems, opposite leaves and lipped flowers.)

A few members of the Mint family - top row from left, Purple Sage (Salvia dorii)Pineapple Mint (Mentha suaveolens 'Variegata'); Chocolate Mint (Mentha X piperita 'Chocolate Mint'); Golden Oregano (Origanum vulgare 'Aurea'); at bottom is English Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia).

The "true mints" are those in the genus Mentha; this is the clan I'm going to focus on in this post. When we say the word "mint," these are the plants that first come to mind - especially spearmint and peppermint. Diana Gabaldon Herself grows a variety of these mints in her garden. In THE OUTLANDISH COMPANION, she says, "... I collect exotic mints (did you know that there are varieties of mint that smell like pineapple, bergamot, orange, apple, grapefruit and chocolate?)."

I once found a "basil mint" in a local nursery. I was excited because basil is hard to grow in the cool maritime climate of the Pacific Northwest. Basil likes warm overnight temperatures and tends to sulk, at best, or turn black around the edges and die, at worst, if it is moved outdoors too early in the season. Mint, on the other hand, loves it here and runs rampant unless it is confined to a pot. I thought that if this "mint" really did taste like basil, the finicky plant problem would be solved and I would have a perennial source of basil. I snitched a bit of a leaf to see what it tasted like - and sure enough, there was that spicy basil flavor! 

I brought the plant home and asked my husband to taste a leaf and tell me what it was. "Mint," was his reply. I said, "No really, try again." He did. Still, "Mint. Not a hint of basil." I was so disappointed. I planted it anyway, of course. And then spent the summer asking people to try tasting a leaf and telling me what they thought it was. Invariably, the women said "basil," and the men all said "mint." Go figure.

Botanical Information

Spearmint (Mentha spicata)
Family: Lamiaceae or Labiatae
Genus: Mentha
Species: True mints include: Mentha X piperita (peppermint), Mentha X piperita 'Chocolate Mint' (chocolate mint) and Mentha X piperita 'Citrata' (many common names: orange mint, lime mint, bergamot mint, eau de cologne mint); Mentha spicata (spearmint) and Mentha spicata 'Crispa' (curly mint); Mentha arvensis (corn mint); Mentha requienii (Corsican mint); Mentha pulegium (pennyroyal); Mentha aquatica (water mint); Mentha suaveolens (apple mint) and M. suaveolens 'Variegata' (pineapple mint)

Mints have been in cultivation world wide for thousands of years. Ancient texts from Chinese, Sumerian and Egyptian cultures describe the cultivation and use of these herbs for both culinary and medicinal purposes.

Mints are easy - most people would say TOO easy - to grow. Planting them in pots, rather than in the open ground, will keep them from overtaking your garden. True mints spread by way of underground runners or rhizomes. They are easily propagated from cuttings or by dividing the plant. 

Mints seem to need more water than other members of the Lamiaceae family. You can ignore lavender and rosemary, but if you want healthy mint leaves for your tabbouleh or juleps, don't let the plants dry out. 

Most of us pick leaves as we need them for cooking or garnishes. But if you want to dry spearmint or peppermint leaves to use for tea, the best time to harvest is on a sunny day, just before the flowers start to open. That is when there will be the highest concentration of oils in the leaves. 

Most of the true mints have upright growth habits, but Corsican mint and pennyroyal can be used as ground covers. 

Medicinal Uses

Mints have been used for centuries to relieve a wide range of complaints including: indigestion, coughs, colds, headaches, burns and nervous conditions. It was used to make teas, tinctures and poultices for both internal and external use. 

It is used widely today in soaps and shampoos and to flavor toothpastes and mouthwashes. 

I always keep a box of minty Altoids on hand to use for stomach upsets. Menthol and other compounds derived from mint leaves relax the smooth muscle in the digestive tract, which relieves nausea and eases cramping and pain. Mint is a carminative agent, meaning that it inhibits the formation of gas - a very welcome benefit, especially during dinner parties! 
"The menthol in peppermint also destroys bacteria, parasites, and viruses in the stomach without harming beneficial intestinal flora." - Mary Preuss THE NORTHWEST HERB LOVER'S HANDBOOK
Mint has antiseptic properties. In DRUMS OF AUTUMN, we find Claire Fraser preparing for the worst as she follows Jamie on another of their adventures. "I likely could not prevent damage; but I could try to repair what had happened already. Disinfection and cleansing - I had a bottle of distilled alcohol, and a wash made from pressed garlic juice and mint." (page 174)

Not all mints are safe to eat, however. Barbara Perry Lawton, author of MINTS (see link below), offers this warning:
"Corsican mint (M. requienii), Japanese mint (M. arvensis var. piperascens), and the pennyroyals (M. cervina, M. pulegium) all contain a toxic oil that can cause convulsions and coma." 
Best to stick with peppermint and spearmint leaves for your medicinal and culinary needs.


Culinary Uses

There are many ways to use mint in foods and beverages. Mint adds a zing to salads and fruit punches. It brings balance to the richness of fatty dishes. A cup of mint tea is a soothing finish to a meal. Mint leaves make an attractive and edible garnish. There's mint jelly and mint candies - the list goes on.

Because mint is such a prolific herb, I'm always on the lookout for new and interesting ways to use the bounty. Here are a few ideas.
Want a hearty dish for supper? On her popular Outlander Kitchen website, Theresa Carle-Sanders offers this flavorful alternative to haggis: Lamb Sausage with Fennel, Mint & Preserved Lemon. (This was the recipe that inspired me to start making my own sausage for which I am most grateful!) 
Need a refreshing cocktail for an Outlander happy hour? Amy Stewart, aka THE DRUNKEN BOTANIST, says that you should start with spearmint. She suggests varieties such as 'Mojito,' a Cuban import, or 'Kentucky Colonel,' an important ingredient in her Classic Mint Julep
And here is my recipe for Quinoa Tabbouleh, a summertime staple at my house. I prefer the sharper flavor of peppermint over spearmint for this dish. I suggest making this the day before you plan to serve it in order to let the flavors blend.
For a comprehensive guide to the entire mint family, I recommend Barbara Perry Lawton's book MINTS: A FAMILY OF HERBS AND ORNAMENTALS.

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