Men t sh pa p

Mint is wonderful for the digestion, as a tea, in food and medicinally. It also relieves nausea, spasms, and gas, and offers the benefits of being both warming and cooling to the body.

Lamiaceae (Labiatae) Deadnettle family

Description: Aromatic perennials with dense whorls of lilac flowers.

Habitat: Most species prefer stream sides and damp places in woods or grassland.

Distribution: Native and naturalized mints are found around the world.

Species: Peppermint (M. x piperita) and field or wild mint (M. arvensis) are native and widespread in North America and Europe. Other European species such as water mint (Mentha aquatica), pennyroyal (M. pulegium), spearmint (M. spicata), and apple or round-leaved mint (M. suaveolens) are naturalized in North America. They hybridize easily with each other and with garden mints. Any of them can be used, but avoid pennyroyal if you are pregnant.

Parts used: Leaves and flowers, harvested in spring and summer.

A hot, hazy, sultry afternoon in high summer, under a high blue sky with scudding white clouds. We are visiting a wet part of the wood behind our house. Water mint and peppermint abound, at their washed-out purple peak, along with the almost identical colors of hemp agrimony and the commoner thistles.

This is an example of collective taking of turns as plants of similar color ripen together. The pale purple flowers are active this week along with attendant pollinators. Butterflies, bees, flies, and smaller insects are pulled to the mints, and red admirals, peacocks, meadow browns, commas, and whites feast on the flowers. Photographing them is another matter, but eventually a meadow brown stays still.

It's one of those days when herbal medicine is at its most pleasant and mellow, with the sweet tang of bruised mint and lazy buzz of insects giving us a feeling we have taken to calling content-mint.

But what do we mean by "mint"? There are at least two dozen different species and hundreds of cultivars, if you add the wild and garden mints together. Moreover, the mints hybridize willingly and produce subtle new forms. As a ninth-century treatise on plants put it, "if one were to enumerate completely all the virtues, varieties and names of mint, one would be able to say how many fish are swimming in the Red Sea..."

We must simplify, and suggest you can use any garden or wild mint. Mints are chemically divided by smell and taste into pepperminty mints and spearminty mints, though there are many variations.

What we usually mean by "mint" is probably peppermint (M. piperita), which has flourished in gardens and in the wild since the seventeenth century. It is considered to be a hybrid of watermint and spearmint, but has a stronger proportion of aromatic oils than either. These oils, particularly menthol, account for the greater "mintiness" of peppermint and for its commercial use.

Modern commercial uses of mint build on older and proven herbal applications, but to our mind the focus on taste has all but negated the original herbal virtues.

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