It has been used by all the ancient civilizations; by the Egyptians and Greeks as an aromatic bathing herb, as an appetite stimulant by the Romans, who also used it to flavour wine and sauces and as a strewing herb in medieval homes.
Throughout the Middle East mint it is a symbol of hospitality. In Morocco, drinking a cup of mint tea with friends and family is one of the important rituals of the day and business deals are often sealed with a cup of mint tea.
Few herbs are as diverse.
As a flavouring, it can go from the simple to the sublime. On a hot day nothing beats a glass of cold water with a sprig of mint and there is no better accompaniment to roast leg of lamb than mint sauce.
Mint can be added to salads, vegetables and fruity desserts, sorbets and jellies. It is delicious in cool and hot drinks, as well as in salad dressings, dips (like Tzadziki) and vinegars. Garden mint is the most popular, but varieties like apple, pineapple, ginger, basil, eau de cologne, peppermint and spearmint all have a distinctive flavour and fragrance.
Mint is still added to bathwater for an invigorating bath that eases stress and strained muscles. A strong infusion of mint can be combined with vinegar as a household cleaner or strewn in cupboards to keep mice away. Eau-de-cologne mint is added to potpourris and combined with other herbs in herbal sachets.
Garden mint and peppermint are used for medicinal purposes. Mint tea at the end of a meal doesn’t just taste good, it acts as a digestive tonic and antispasmodic that eases heartburn, indigestion and settles an upset stomach. Nausea and travel sickness can also be countered with soothing mint tea.
Peppermint helps to soothe a nagging cough and relieve colds. If used as an inhalant, it eases nasal catarrh.
Because it loves moisture, mint is traditionally grown under the garden tap, but that is not always the best place for it. Taps are often in a shady place and mint prefers full sun explains Louis van Aswegen of Healthy Living Herbs. He suggests planting mint in richly composted soil that will retain moisture for the roots while the leaves soak up the sun. When mint gets too much shade it tends to get mildew and rust.
Mint makes a lovely groundcover that can be invasive but it is easily controlled by regularly pulling out the runners or planting it in a pot and sinking it in the ground. Lift up the pot every now and then and trim off the runners.
Mint should be fed regularly with an organic fertiliser, especially those in containers that are watered often as the nutrients leech out.
Being a strong smelling plant mint acts as an insect repellent and is a good companion for broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, squash and tomatoes. If allowed to flower, mint attracts beneficial insects such as wasps and hoverfly that control aphids. If you don’t want to plant garden mint, opt for the non-edible Pennyroyal or Corsican mint that forms a dense matt over the soil. An infusion of mint with liquid sunlight soap can be used as an insect repelling spray for aphids.
In most areas mint dies down in winter and can be regenerated in spring by planting out root cuttings. It is a good idea to make new plants because this gets rid of diseases from the previous season. Try planting mint in a new position as well.
Different kinds of mint
Garden mint (Mentha spicata) and Spearmint (Mentha spicata aquatica) are the two most popular mints. They have deep green, very aromatic leaves, with the latter having a spearmint flavour. Used for mint sauce, jellies, in cakes, cosmetics, natural insecticides and medicines.
Apple mint (Mentha suaveolens) is tall growing, with hairy leaves and mauve flowers. Good for mint sauce, jellies, cooked vegetables and salad.
Pineapple mint (Mentha suaveolens variegata) has green and cream variegated leaves with a strong pineapple scent. Use the flowers and leaves in salads, fruit salads, and as a garnish.
Basil mint (Mentha x piperita f.citrata ‘Basil) has small leaves with a basil mint aroma. Used for flavouring melon, tomatoes and fruit salad.
Black Peppermint (Mentha x piperita) has very dark brown, oval strongly peppermint scented leaves. Has medicinal uses, especially relieving indigestion and chest infections.
Eau de Cologne mint (Mentha piperita ‘Citrata’) has large, round dark green leaves with an orange and purple tinge. Used in oils and vinegars.
Chocolate mint (Mentha piperita spp) has dark green brown leaves with a chocolate peppermint flavour. Add to puddings, ice cream and drinks. A warm glass of milk with chocolate mint is a bedtime treat for kids.
Ginger mint (Mentha Gracilis) has variegated gold and green ginger scented leaves that can be used in salads, teas, drinks and for floral decorations.
Mint julep (Mentha spicata ‘Julep’) has sweetly scented leaves and a striking fresh flavour making it ideal for beverages, as well as medicinally and as a natural insect repellent.
Ground cover mints include Slender mint (Mentha diemenica ‘Aussie Mint’), Lawn Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium var.) and Corsican mint ( Mentha requienii) which are flat, low growing groundcovers that are ideal between paving, stepping stones and walkways. They release their scent when trodden upon. Penny Royal (Mentha pulegium) is upright growing and bears clusters of mauve flowers. When crushed the leaves release a strong peppermint fragrance that repel ants, fleas and mosquitoes.
Mint Tea – an art form
In Morocco, making mint tea is regarded as a job suitable only for men, who consider it an art form! The pouring technique is as important as the quality of the tea. Moroccan tea pots have long curved spouts and the tea is poured from a height so that bubbles will be introduced into the tea. The tea is served in small glasses and for the best taste the glasses are filled in two stages. The tea is sweetened with sugar lumps or cones.
Garden mint is the preferred mint for mint tea but any of the other flavoured mints can be added.
Another teatime practice is to put a sprig of mint, spearmint or peppermint into a pot of ordinary tea. Mint sprigs are believed reduce the adverse effects of tannin and caffeine. Remove the mint after two or three minutes.