Cooking Fresh with Mint
By Dani Lind | Photos By Jim Klousia 0
I moved to Southwest Wisconsin and bought my farm with some friends almost 17 years ago. We were all young, relatively carefree, and super enamored with our new home. One of our favorite things was the swimming hole down the road. Formed in the curve of a trout creek, it had clear cool water and a sandy bottom just deep enough to do a shallow dive from the grassy bank. To top it off, growing on that grassy bank was this lovely purple-tinged wild mint. You could stand in the water and just reach up and grab a leaf to nibble on in the sunshine. Or lie on the bank listening to the rushing water and looking up at the clouds and crush a sprig of it to release its refreshing, spicy, peppermint scent. It was the best. Sadly, a flood in 2007 majorly altered the creek and wiped the swimming hole out. I still miss it, and the scent of wild mint will forever induce a wave of nostalgia for that bit of paradise.
Back in those early days at the farm, I was also garden-crazy, so naturally I planted some mint. It’s a perennial, so it went in my perennial flower and herb beds rather than my annual vegetable garden. The first variety I tried was an apple mint, but it wasn’t as “minty” as I wanted. My friend Arwyn gave me cuttings of a lovely spearmint variety from her garden. She called it Vietnamese spearmint, and it quickly became my go-to mint for most culinary applications. I still grow a huge raised bed of it to use for my catering business and bar. It has bright, deep green, smooth leaves with a super sweet, not to bite-y spearmint flavor. It makes a wonderfully refreshing addition to teas, cocktails, salads, sauces, salsas and even just a glass of cold water.
Mint has become such a mainstay in my garden, and over the years, I’ve learned how much of a delicious and useful culinary and medicinal herb it is. I’ve always wondered where it came from, especially that wild mint. Was it always here, like native bee balm? Or was it introduced from overseas and eventually naturalized, like watercress? How is wild mint related to my garden varieties?
Mint is in the same family (Lamiaceae) as many other aromatic herbs, such as catnip, oregano, lemon balm, thyme, sage, rosemary and basil. There are more than two dozen different species in the mint genus (Mentha) that are native to different places around the world, most of them from the Mediterranean region. Some species regularly cross with each other, forming naturally occurring hybrids, and there are at least 600 known varieties within those species and hybrid species. For instance, peppermint is a cross between spearmint (Mentha spicata) and water mint (Mentha aquatica), native to Europe and the Middle East, and there are dozens of cultivars within that hybrid species, like lime mint, chocolate mint, orange mint, and many commercial varieties used for essential oil production.
I’m pretty sure that the wild mint at my old swimming hole was some form of Mentha canadensis, or American wild mint. This species is native not only to all of North America but also to the Phillipines, Russia, eastern and southeastern Asia, Japan and Australia (outside of North America, it’s called Mentha arvensis). It is much more peppermint flavored than my garden mints and gets quite spicy and bitter once it starts to flower, so it’s not my favorite mint to use in culinary applications, except as tea. That spiciness comes from its naturally high menthol content, for which it’s cultivated all over the world to be used in toothpaste, gum, cough medicine, and other similar products for its anesthetic, analgesic, antibacterial and decongestant properties.
In contrast, the Vietnamese spearmint is a variety of Scotch spearmint (Mentha x gracilis, also called ginger mint), which is a cross between spearmint and a type of European wild mint. Spearmint is thought to have been brought over to our continent by the New England Pilgrims in the early 1600s, and it has a much sweeter, milder flavor than wild mint or peppermint.
The apple mint I have growing in my perennial bed is some kind of Mentha suaveolens. It has furry, light green leaves with white flower spikes and is mild in flavor. Pretty variegated pineapple mint, grapefruit mint, and Latin American hierba buena are all varieties of Mentha suaveolens. I will sometimes use apple mint where I would use spearmint, but generally I prefer spearmint because of its smoother leaves and more intense flavor.
In addition to being a delicious culinary herb, mint is rich in historic medicinal use and folklore. We’ve found dried mint dating back to 1000 BCE in Egyptian pyramids. Ancient Greeks used mint for mental and physical fortitude, while Romans used it to perfume their baths, aid digestion, cool tempers and alleviate bad breath. There’s even a Greek myth about mint: When the goddess Persephone caught her husband, Hades, having an affair with a water nymph named Minthe, she transformed Minthe into a lowly plant to be trod upon. Hades felt bad and made the lover-turned-plant super aromatic, so at least when walked on she’d release a sweet, lovely scent.
Both ancient Roman and Ayurvedic texts recommend mint to stimulate the appetite, and in traditional Chinese medicine, mint supports the lungs, liver and upper intestine. Ancient Hebrews would strew their synagogue floors with sprigs of mint, as would Medieval Europeans on the floors of homes and shops. This functioned as both old-school air freshener and pest deterrent (mice and rats hate the smell of mint). Medieval monks would use dried mint to polish their teeth (the original mint toothpaste?), and an 18th century English authority claimed that mint could treat venereal disease, headaches and the common cold. Native Americans used American wild mint for toothaches, reducing fevers, pneumonia, stomach cramping, diarrhea and arthritis.
Modern-day herbal wisdom concurs that mint can be useful for treating allergies and headaches, breaking up mucus associated with the common cold, relieving indigestion, gas and bloating, and maintaining a healthy mouth and teeth. (Please note that large doses of mint can be dangerous during pregnancy, so consult your physician before using for medicinal purposes.) New studies confirm that mint can improve concentration, and several Japanese companies are even piping mint essential oil into their air conditioning units to improve employee productivity.
Most mint produced around the world is for essential oil production. According to the Wisconsin Mint Board, Wisconsin is one of eight U.S. states that cultivate mint commercially, with the nation growing around 150,000 acres, or about 70 percent of the world’s supply. Ninety percent of the mint grown commercially for oil is used as natural flavoring for toothpaste and chewing gum, and the three species used are peppermint, spearmint and Scotch spearmint. The rest is used for herbal remedies, aromatherapy, tea, etc.
Whatever variety you choose, mint is an excellent plant to grow yourself. Vigorous, hearty and very adaptable, it’s a long-lived perennial and one of the first plants up in the spring and one of the last to freeze in the late fall. It can be a bit invasive, but that’s a small price to pay for something so lovely and bountiful. Since it spreads vigorously via underground runners, it’s not a bad idea to contain it by either planting it in your garden in a deep pot with drainage holes in the bottom and the lip at least 2 inches above the ground (the runners are toward the surface), or in its own patch on the edge of a yard. It’s also safest to give different varieties plenty of space since they can cross-pollinate and lose their distinctiveness over time. It can grow in part shade to full sun in a variety of soil conditions. You can also grow it in a container on your patio and bring it inside for the winter if you’ve got a nice sunny window.
Once you have access to fresh mint, try adding it to yogurt with a bit of lemon juice and cucumbers, to cracked wheat or quinoa with parsley and scallions for a fresh spring tabbouleh, to apples or radishes or pineapples in a salsa, or to gunpowder green tea for Moroccan mint tea. It’s divine with strawberries. After it blooms, it even makes a pretty and wonderful-smelling cut flower. Or just nibble a leaf in the sunshine. Who knows? It might make you healthier or smarter, or at least make your belly feel good and your breath fresh!