Mint is a fantastic, fresh smelling plant that most people probably know as a garnish in drinks, the flavor of toothpaste, or as a concentrated hard candy that will coat your bad breath with something a little more tolerable. However, this commonly found plant has a colorful history and, like many unique plants, not only has a culinary use but a medical use. The species that make up the plant are widely distributed and can be found in many environments, but grow best in damp soil. It is a very easy plant to grow, and even if it appears dead, if given enough time it will spring back to life. In fact, it is so easy to grow that it will continue to spread over massive areas, and is considered invasive.
Mint Culture and History
The name “mint” comes from a nymph in Greek mythology named Minthe, who for a short while was Pluto’s girlfriend, until his jealous wife turned Minthe into a ground-clinging plant. Pluto was able to change Minthe back into a nymph, but she would forever smell fresh and . . . well, “minty” and would sweeten the air with her scent. There are also biblical references that suggest mint was a plant of extremely high value.
Mint appears to have originated in Europe and the Mediterranean, when the Romans would throw it around at feasts and banquets as a welcoming sign to guests. They also flavored their wines and sauces with mint. Mint is often used as a companion plant, repelling bad insects while attracting good ones. Mint is also used as an environmentally friendly insecticide, helping to kill hornets, ants, cockroaches, and wasps.
Health Benefits of Mint
The chief essential oil in spearmint, menthol, helps to relieve fatigue and stress. The plant is rich in many antioxidant vitamins, including vitamin A, beta carotene, vitamin C, folates, vitamin B-6, riboflavin and thiamin – many of which help to ward off cancer-causing components. Almost all parts of the mint had its place in folk medicine, and still holds ground in modern medicine. Any headaches or nervous strain is said to evaporate with use of the plant, and it helps to alleviate respiratory problems like asthma and bronchitis. Digestive problems are also healed when the herb is consumed as the oils relax the stomach muscles. Topically, menthol oil also has local anaesthetic properties, as well as relief of irritation.
Mint is also a strong, effective diuretic, so it will help to eliminate toxins from the body. Oddly, mint will apparently reduce the growth of bacteria and fungus in the body, acting as a preventative aid against some diseases and allergies. Of course, mint has other purposes outside the body, which makes this a more interesting herb; it can be used to freshen homes and give a nice scent to newly-cleaned areas, should one prefer a natural route instead of spraying chemicals around the kitchen and bathroom.
Eating More Mint
Though most people know mint as a garnish for drinks like mai tais and mojitos, the culinary uses are broad in certain types of food. Many Middle Eastern dishes use mint, as well as food and drink from the Mediterranean (try the drink “dough” next time you eat out at a Middle Eastern place, it’s fantastic), but many dishes will benefit from the use of mint if a person wants to get creative. Mint can be tossed into a noodle dish with some pesto sauce for a nice balance of the strong basil flavor, it can be cooked over the grill with some fish wrapped in aluminum, Roman-style artichokes, mixed with vinaigrettes, or with steamed halibut wrapped in grapefruit leaves. Perhaps more than anything, the importance of mint lies in creativity, as many dishes can benefit from the fresh menthol flavor. Go buy a mint plant – they’re cheap! – and toss a few leaves in your favorite salad this afternoon, and tell us what you think!