Notes from the Apothecary: Mint
Some of my friends have had trouble growing mint but I can’t seem to stop the stuff! Each winter it dies down completely, only to return in late spring in about a dozen other places other than the one I originally planted it in. My favourite is a Black Peppermint, which has a lovely, dusky purple shade to the leaves and is deliciously pungent. As the plant itself is now returning, I thought it a perfect time to explore it in a bit more detail.
The Kitchen Garden
Mint has been used for culinary purposes throughout the history of many different cultures. It is used in Indian food to counter balance spiciness or add depth of flavour. It is used as a fresh, sharp flavour in numerous cocktails and soft beverages. Mint was an ingredient of many recipes mentioned in Apicius, the Roman collection of recipes probably compiled in the 4th century AD. Mint has also been found in the tombs of the ancient Egyptians, and it is thought they prized the herb very highly.
I love the fresh smell of mint in the kitchen. You only have to slightly bruise the leaves to be rewarded with an aroma that is cooling and satisfying at the same time. Mint is one of those flavours that works well with both sweet and savoury dishes, and also with both hot and cold. Mint ice cream is very popular, and the Mojito is one of the most common additions to any self-respecting cocktail menu. For cold, savoury uses of mint think about raita, the cooling sauce served with Indian food, or tzatziki, the Greek equivalent.
Mint jelly has been the condiment of choice for many lamb dishes for years, but it also works with chicken, fish and even vegetable dishes. Mint sauce is much easier to make than the jelly; it doesn’t last as long but it’s so yummy, that won’t matter much! Mint sauce is just fresh mint, sugar, vinegar and water. Some people blend it but I prefer to finely chop the mint for a more textured sauce. Experiment with it- everyone’s tastes are different!
As a medicine…
The Rosa Anglica written probably in 1314 speaks of mint and its healing qualities for fevers, heart problems, lethargy and even paralysis. The ancient Egyptians used it to freshen their breath, which we still do today; think of toothpaste, mouthwash, chewing gum; the freshest and most odour neutralising flavours are almost always mint based.
It’s not just ancient texts that praise the health benefits of mint though; Medical News Today claims that mint has anti-inflammatory properties, is a natural decongestant, helps with indigestion, is a safe treatment for IBS and can even be applied topically for rashes and insect bites.
As an herbalist, I generally consider mint the go-to herb for most stomach upsets. Mint reduces muscle spasms, which can aid good digestion and relieve the pain caused by stomach cramps. Because of this, it can also be used for period pain as it works on uterus cramps in a similar way. Simply steep a handful of shredded mint leaves in some hot water for ten minutes, then drink it down. Some folks sweeten it with honey, but I don’t find it necessary; the flavour of fresh mint is so pleasing all by itself.
Science tells us…
The reason mint tastes cool is because the menthol in the leaves is literally tricking your brain into thinking you have eaten something cold. Scientists know how this happens (menthol binds to a particular nerve receptor that tells your brain you are feeling something cold) but they still don’t know why. This reaction could explain some of the anti-inflammatory effects of the herb though; if applied topically, the body may literally be reacting as if that area of the skin has been cooled, just like applying ice to a burn.
In the Witch’s Kitchen
Interestingly much folklore shows odd ways of using mint which would have exactly the same results as if you just ate the plant. For example, Cunningham tells us a poppet stuffed with mint leaves and anointed with the oil will alleviate stomach problems. Well, that’s as may be, but you’d be as well to just eat the stuff and save yourself the hassle!
Mint is associated with sexuality but in very conflicting ways. The ancient Greeks believed the herb promoted lust, yet the Romans believed it inhibited sexual behaviour. Perhaps they are both right, and the plant is a transformative; not an aphrodisiac, but a tool to either increase or decrease the libido, depending on which outcome is desired.
The Greeks also revered mint as the herb of hospitality, after Zeus and Hermes were fed by an old couple who rubbed the serving table with mint to clean and freshen it. Place mint in your sacred spaces to encourage the presence of your deities, ancestors or spirits, and to show them they are welcome. Mint will also protect your home and hearth from unwanted energies, a magic that no doubt stems from the natural antiseptic properties of the plant.
Mint is generally considered masculine in magical terms, but the name actually comes from a female nymph in Greek mythology. Minthe was a naiad; a water spirit. She was having a bit of a fling with Hades and made Persephone all cranky. Persephone stamped upon Minthe in anger, and a beautiful smell arose, for Minthe had transformed into the herb which forever bears her name.
For practical uses, mint is an excellent herb for ‘undoing’ magic; breaking hexes, curses, spells or perhaps unwinding yourself from a tricky situation or a commitment unwittingly made.
For you to try at home…
Rub fresh mint leaves on your temples to alleviate a headache.
Sprinkle dried mint into incense for evocation magic. The herb says ‘you are welcome’ and emphasises your intent to evoke your chosen being.
To bring unity to a gathering of several within a magic circle, give each member a fresh mint leaf and as you all stand in the circle, rub the mint on your wrists and breathe deeply. Allow the scent to fill your senses. It will cool, calm and focus all of you, and above all, allow you to move into your ritual or magical working as one.
Finally, one thing you didn’t know about mint…
Mint was one of the fragrant herbs used in Egyptian and Roman funeral rites… to mask the smell of decay. Mmmm…