When I get to be an old, old lady, scrawny and skinny, all elbows and knees and just can’t imagine growing a vegetable garden anymore, I will still grow my herbs. Returning to my garden from being away I go to my herbs first. They anchor me. There is something so timeless about them, magical even. Who knows, maybe in a past life I was a shaman or a witch, poking around in my herb patch, passing out love potions and remedies.
One of my fondest memories of the 15th century farmhouse we rented in Tuscany was the herbs growing by the back door. Years ago, traveling in the mountains in the south of Spain, it was the waist high herbs – rosemary and thyme – growing wild on the mountainsides that drew me.
Mint is probably the first herb I ever grew and one I have always grown in my garden – spearmint, peppermint and lemon balm. Mint, along with basil, rosemary, sage, marjoram, oregano, thyme and many other herbs we use in cooking as are all part of the Lamiaceae family. In general we think of these herbs as having a pungency and sometimes astringency accompanied by their aromatic notes. Many, including mint, can also be extracted for their oils. Mint is prolific; it can be grown in almost all light conditions. If anything you have to provide boundaries so it doesn’t take over. It also grows well in a pot. To promote the growth of the plant, instead of plucking leaves or cutting off small branches, pinch off what you need from the base stem. Where one stem existed, two will grow back in its place. This is true of most herbs.
Indigenous to the Mediterranean and other parts of Europe, mint is now grown all over the world. The name comes from a Greek nymph, Minthe, who caught the eye of Pluto, ruler of Hades. When his wife Persephone found out about his infatuation, she turned Minthe into a lowly plant to be stepped on. Pluto could not reverse his wife’s curse, but instead gave Minthe a wonderful scent that would only be intensified when crushed. Greek mythology also tells of two passersby who were finally offered food by an older couple in a village. The couple first rubbed down the table with mint before offering them a meal. The guests, Zeus and Hermes in disguise, were impressed and so mint became the herb of hospitality.
Mint is used extensively in cooking in India and the Middle East in many dishes, chutneys and sauces. In my next blog post I will talk about its delicious culinary uses, but first I wanted to talk about its medicinal uses. In addition to nourishing us, foods have the quality to balance and heal our bodies. While we all have home remedies, we usually don’t take foods seriously when we consider health. So I would like to do just that. Many cultures have their own wealth of knowledge about the medicinal uses of foods, especially herbs. Anjuli and I have the most familiarity with the ancient Indian holistic system, Ayurveda, and its primary use of food, not medicine, as a means of maintaining good health. Ayur means life and Veda means knowledge; the knowledge of life. This system has been around for over 5,000 years. It describes people in terms of bodily humors or doshas – vata, pitta and kapha. Each of us has our own unique combination of the characteristics found in these three doshas. Health then comes from balancing the doshas. While western medicines may be stronger than Ayurvedic treatment, they treat the body once it is far out of balance (e.g. by the time symptoms appear the body is already very sick). Ayurveda uses food to keep the body in balance every day, making modern pharmacology usually unnecessary. Lest we forget, many Western medicines come from plants just like mint. Mint is said to be tridoshic, because it is balancing to all three doshas and cooling to pitta. Ayurvedically you can cook with mint as often as you wish.
To dry mint and cook with it all winter, simply cut the sprigs leaving about 6″ on each branch. Dump the sprigs in a basket. I leave it out of the way in my kitchen but where it still gets air. In about a week or so it is usually dry and crumbly. I run my hand along the branches, letting the leaves fall onto a cookie sheet. I store the dried leaves in an airtight jar out of the light in my pantry cupboard.
You can make a tea of fresh or dried mint. It is cooling and refreshing to the body. It is an excellent remedy for reducing symptoms related to digestion. It soothes the stomach, helps with upsets, gas and vomiting, nausea and menstrual cramps. Mint is also useful for respiratory ailments, colds, coughs and fevers. Its oil is soluble in oil or water so mint can be made into poultices and balms, and because of its high menthol content, it can be inhaled.
To make the oil yourself, which is miles cheaper than buying the remedy, buy or gather a bundle of fresh peppermint. If gathering your own, it is best in the morning after the dew has dried when the oils are at their peak for the day. Wash the peppermint, discarding any imperfect leaves. When dry, put them in a plastic bag and bruise them gently with a wooden spoon or mallet to release their oil.
Place them in a glass jar and cover with either almond oil, grapeseed oil or wheat germ oil. Let sit for 24 hours, then strain the oil through cheesecloth. It is best to store in a dark bottle, out of sunlight.
Below are a few of the simple uses of mint that are non-food related. (These first two are from India.)
Dark circles: Crush mint leaves with a little water to make a juice. Add honey and almond oil. Rub a little under your eyes each night before going to bed. This is said to keep your eyes bright and lovely.
Face wash: Bruise mint in a bowl of water. Let sit for one hour. Keep in the frig and use as needed.
Face pack: Two sprigs worth of mint leaves, half a tub of plain yogurt and 1/4 of a cucumber. Puree to a paste. Leave on face for 15 minutes. Purifies and smoothes.
Dandruff control: mint combined with rosemary and vinegar is supposed to cure dandruff. Combine sprigs of rosemary and mint in a bottle of vinegar. Seal the bottle and let sit for at least one week out of direct sunlight.
Teeth: Spearmint has been used since ancient times to whiten teeth.
Deodorant and perfume: Native Americans are still using mint as a deodorant and a perfume.
Coughs and fever: Drink spearmint tea.
Headaches: Rub peppermint essential oil on the temples. The cooling properties of the menthol and the aroma are said to help with all forms of headaches, as is strong mint tea.
Diarrhea: One teaspoon of fresh mint juice mixed with equal parts of lime juice and honey taken 3 times a day is said to be an excellent treatment for diarrhea.
Respiratory ailments and congestion: Rub peppermint oil directly on skin.
Joint pain and arthritis: Rub peppermint essential oil directly on skin.
In the garden: Mint is a good companion plant, repelling harmful insects and attracting beneficial ones, but plant it in pots so it does not take over your garden. Mints prefer a cool, moist spot in partial shade. But I for one have grown my mint in full sunlight and it is very happy.
Insecticide and mosquito repellent: Campers rub it on themselves and put it in their tents to repel and/or kill mosquitoes, ants and cockroaches. For those of us who don’t live in a tent we can use it in our houses and apartments. It is said if you grow it by your backdoor, it will keep ants away. Mint oil is said to be an insecticide for wasps, hornets, ants and cockroaches. I will have to try that. We don’t have cockroaches but we sure have tons of wasps.