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Worth a Mint

By Audrey Stallsmith

mentha piperita

I am that flower-that mint. . .

Love's Labor's Lost V, ii

Rats and mice are supposed to hate the scent of mint, but we humans find it stimulating and invigorating. Pliny wrote that "the very smell of it alone recovereth and refresheth the spirits."

He recommended that students crown themselves with the plant to sharpen their thinking, or clear their throats with its juice before prolonged speaking. The ancients also strewed floors, rubbed tables, and stuffed pillows with mints--even adding the pungent odor to baths.

Gerard commented that "the smelle rejoiceth the heart of man, for which cause they used to strew it in chambers and places of recreation, pleasure and repose." He added that, "The smell of mint doth stir up the minde and the taste to a greedy desire of meate."

If consumed with that "meate," mint might prevent indigestion, sweeten the breath and whiten the teeth! Culpeper asserted that the plant also stirred up other greedy desires, namely "venery or bodily lust." Although there are scads of mints--as many, one writer insisted, "as there are sparks in Vulcan's furnace"--the most popular remain peppermint (mentha piperita) and spearmint (mentha viridis).

The mints are named after Menthe. A mythological nymph and daughter of the river god Cocyte, she loved Pluto. His jealous wife, Persephone, A.K.A. Prosperine, supposedly turned the pretty young thing into a lowly plant to be trodden underfoot. Unable to reverse his spouse's spell, Pluto tried to atone by at least granting his ex-lover a pleasant odor!

An old superstition cautions that mint must never be gathered with an iron tool. The herb was often carried for protection by travelers or those performing exorcisms--and sometimes placed with money to make it grow! Another old wives' tale holds that an injured man must not be fed mint, or he will never mend.

The flavorful plant has been popular for a long time. It appears in Ebers Papyrus, the oldest known medical "book." Christ condemned the hypocritical Pharisees for assiduously paying tithes "of mint and anise and cummin," while they ignored other laws less to their liking. The Romans carried spearmint, also known as Roman mint, with them to Britain. The more pungent peppermint, A.K.A. brandy mint, is believed to be a later spearmint hybrid. The Pilgrims conveyed both plants to America.

Playing near summer streams as children, my siblings and I would often scent the unseasonal Christmas-y odor of candy canes, and eagerly trace the smell to its source. As Gerard put it, mints "being once set. . .continue long and remaine sure and fast in the ground."

So we could never tell whether the plants we stumbled across were wild mint (mentha arvensis) or a domesticated variety planted years before near a long-gone springhouse. Perhaps a housewife had used the herbs, as the ancients did, to prevent milk from souring.

The mints prefer damp soil in partial shade, but will also flourish in the sun if kept moist. "White" peppermint is considered to have a better flavor than the "black" variety, which is actually a purplish color.

When planted near stinging nettle, mints increase their output of menthol. But keep them away from chamomile, which will decrease their pungency.

Mints are most often used these days to flavor candies, dental products, and summer drinks-especially lemonade and the southern julep (mint-garnished bourbon). They also add a piquant taste to dishes of lamb, green peas and new potatoes, and pea soup. A "pasty" (turnover) with a currant and mint filling was once popular in Yorkshire.

The herb, as Gerard points out, is also "marvelous wholesome for the stomacke." It relieves indigestion, raises internal heat to induce perspiration for fevers, and relieves congestion, motion sickness, rheumatic pain, sore throat, and toothache. Peppermint oil disinfects as well. And, strangely enough, stimulating mint is also recommended as a cure for insomnia.

It is no wonder that mint stands for "virtue" or "eternal refreshment" in the Language of Flowers. In particular, spearmint represents "friendliness" while peppermint speaks of "cordiality" or "wisdom."

Mint's reputation for increasing wealth probably arose from its similarity to the Saxon word "mynet" ("money"). Although the plant will not actually multiply coins, it is an inexpensive and easily-grown treatment for a variety of ills. So it may, in fact, improve your finances along with your digestion!