Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Mints are in the Meadow

All of our mints are up and waving.  It won't be long before they start to bloom and the pollinators will be buzzing around them. 
The mint family (lamiaceae) is very large.  Although right now I'm thinking about the mentha or menthol group, this family includes lavender, basil, thyme, and catnip for starters, and even many common weeds like dead nettle and ground ivy.  A family reunion for lamiaceae would be quite diverse.

In this part of the country, meadow mint is something that most country kids brought home for tea.  It was also encouraged in farmhouse gardens. 
Meadow mint - Spearmint

Spearmint is what I think of as "meadow mint" and it grows wild in many places.  The creek where I spent most of my childhood summer days was lined with it - along with stinging nettle (we called it burn hazel), wild forget-me-nots, and jewelweed.  For years, I associated the scent of spearmint vaguely with tadpoles, newts, sweat, and sunfish.
It showed up here on the farm, and has become a renewed favorite for my brother-in-law, who has nurtured a patch (in addition to that which has been plowed in the fields, and will forever continue to spread).
Around the same time, another mint that Susan Hess identifies as "fuzzy mint" while many also call it apple mint, but it is a very sweet and mild spearmint to my tastes, showed up and has also spread.

Fuzzy mint or apple mint, a type of spearmint
I planted peppermint which also got plowed one year, so now it is a loooong row, and then later, chocolate mint went into the garden.  Chocolate peppermint tastes very strong to me, like peppermint patties, but the chocolate part isn't that pronounced (again, to me).
Chocolate mint.  Note the dark stems and veins.
 Mints are very much taken for granted.  They can be invasive, so we need to take care where we plant them, but once they're in they ask for nothing.  They will thrive on being ignored.  Mint is in so many things!  Toothpaste and mouthwash are usually mint flavored (a very miniscule amount of the essential oil is used).  Candy and gums are made with mint, and we even use menthol derived from the plant in salves or commercial preparations to cool sore muscles or arthritic joints. 
menthol crystals
 The leaves are combined in many teas, and fruit and/or grain dishes benefit from the chopped leaves. One of our best selling soaps contains mint.  And what would the Kentucky Derby be without mint juleps?  For such an unassuming plant that we don't think that much about, we sure use it a lot. Do I need to mention mint chocolate chip iced cream?
Meadow mint, fuzzy mint, and chocolate mint together in a basket.
Above, I've gathered the three mints that I use in one of the tea blends I make.  It's early, so the gathering is comparatively small and this will only dry down to a couple of ounces (if that), so every day, I'll toss the contents of the basket until it is dry.  Recently, there have been articles about herb teas containing very little of what is on the label, but THIS is how small herbal businesses make their blends.  No grass, no filler, just the beautiful fresh herbs in there. 

Medicinally, mint has a lot to offer too.
It is so cooling and relaxing that it just claims a hot summer night.  Iced mint tea on the porch, nice and sweet - right?  It's full of antioxidants, has antibacterial properties, and has long been used for settling an upset tummy or flatulence.  If you're prone to GERD, avoid peppermint, though.  My friend Betty Pillsbury clued me into the fact that peppermint will relax the esophageal valve that causes that particular problem - but spearmint is fine.  The tea calms coughs, soothes colds and sore throats, and can help bring down a fever.

One important caution -
While the essential oil is used commercially in all of these culinary treats, a very small quantity is toxic or even fatal (less than 1/4 ounce).  A single drop can more than sufficiently flavor over a pound of mint candy.  Use of the essential oil on infants can cause cardio-respiratory failure.

Grow and use the plants - it's got all the strength you need.
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