Snipping Sprigs of Spearmint

Spearmint (Mentha spicata) is a branching perennial herb of Mediterranean origin. Mint belongs to the family of Lamiaceae, along with basil, beebalm, giant hyssop, ground ivy, lavender, marjoram, oregano,  perilla, rosemary, sage, savory, skullcap, thyme, and wild bergamot. The family also (surprisingly) includes chia, and (even more surprisingly) coleus and teak.

Mint folklore began in ancient mythology. Mint or Mintha, is named after the Greek nymph Minthes, who was turned into a mint plant by Proserpine, the jealous wife of Pluto, for casting covetous eyes on the philandering god of the underworld.  Proserpine gained her revenge by turning Minthes into an herb where she would be forever trampled under people’s feet.  To keep people treading on her forever, Proserpine gave Minthes eternal freshness and fragrance. Both the Latin, Metha, and the Greek, Minthe, have come to be associated with metamorphosed beauty. In ancient Athens, where it was common to scent different parts of the body with different herbs, mint was the scent most commonly used on the arms.

Mint has been found in Egyptian tombs dating back to 1000 BC and has been part of Chinese medicine even longer. The early Romans believed eating mint would increase intelligence.  Biblical references to mint suggest it was of such high value as to be used as tithes by the Pharisees along with anise and cumin. (Matthew xxiii, 23)

Mint was introduced to England by the Romans. The scent of mint was supposed to stop people from losing their tempers, and royal ambassadors carried mint sprigs in their pockets.  It was also used to sweeten the smell of medieval buildings. In the 14th century, early versions of mint toothpaste were used for whitening teeth. Mint is mentioned by John Gardiner in Feate of Gardening in 1440. Feate is perhaps the earliest horticultural work in the English language and was written in verse.

William Turner (1508 – 1568), who was known as the Father of British Botany, believed that mint was good for ‘ye stomack’ and was pleasant in sauces. John Gerarde (1545 – 1611/12) wrote that mint’s “smelle rejoyceth the heart of man.” Nicholas Culpeper (1616 – 1654), a physician-astrologer who fought in the English Civil War, used mint to treat over 40 different ailments, but warned that mint should never be given to a wounded man because it will prevent his wound from healing. John Josselyn (fl. 1638 – 1675), who traveled from England to New England, identified the Pilgrims as the people most likely responsible for bringing mint to the New World.

Spearmint was recommended for use by people with delicate constitutions or young children with ‘feeble digestive powers’. It was however, not recommended for use when a fever was present. Used externally, oil of spearmint was thought to heal ‘chaps and indolent eruptions.’

Indeed, spearmint has found a place in various traditional as well as in modern medicine. It is said to be an excellent remedy for minor ailments such as headaches, nervous strain, fatigue, and stress, as well as for respiratory problems like asthma and bronchitis. It helps with digestive problems, including nausea, flatulence, indigestion, and hiccups, as it relaxes the digestive muscles. The essential oil, menthol, has analgesic, local anesthetic, and counter-irritant properties. Menthol is also used to prepare toothpaste and mouth wash. When used as a skin cream or lotion, it may help relieve the itching of dermatitis and hives. Spearmint oil is blended into massage oil and used in aromatherapy to help relieve headaches, stress, fatigue, nervous conditions, and itching. Spearmint tea can be used safely in pregnancy. In women, it helps reduce unwanted hair through its anti-androgenic properties.

Spearmint is packed with numerous health-benefiting vitamins, antioxidants, and phytonutrients. The leaves contain the essential oil, menthol. Unlike in peppermint, spearmint leaves have only small amounts of menthol: 0.5% compared to the 40% in peppermint. Lower menthol content makes spearmint the least pungent herb in the mint family. Besides menthol, other important chemical components of spearmint are α-pinene, β-pinene, carvone, cineole, linalool, limonene, myrcene, and caryophyllene. These compounds in spearmint help relieve fatigue and stress. Perillyl alcohol in spearmint slows the growth of liver and possibly other tumors by interfering with the division of cancer cells, and it induces the cells to self-destruct. 

Spearmint is low in calories (about 43 calories per 100 grams) and contains zero cholesterol. Spearmint is high in minerals like potassium, calcium, manganese, iron (148% of RDA), and magnesium. Further, spearmint is also rich in many antioxidant vitamins, including vitamin A (4054 IU or 135% of RDA), beta-carotene, vitamin C, folate (26% of RDA), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine), riboflavin, and thiamine.

Nutrients in 100 grams of Fresh Spearmint

Nutrient

Value

DV

Iron 11.87 mg

148%

Vitamin A 4054 IU

135%

Copper 0.240 mg

75%

Potassium 458 mg

64%

Manganese 1.118 mg

48.5%

Folate 105 µg

26%

Vitamin C 13.3 mg

22%

Calcium 199 mg

20%

Fiber 6.8 g

18%

Magnesium 63 mg

16%

Riboflavin 0.175 mg

13.5%

Pyridoxine 0.158 mg

12%

Zinc 1.09 mg

10%

Carbohydrates 8.41 g

6.5%

Thiamine 0.078 mg

6.5%

Protein 3.29 g

6%

Niacin 0.948 mg

6%

Fat 0.73 g

3%

Calories 44

2%

Sodium 30 mg

2%

Cholesterol 0 mg

0%

Spearmint can be grown in pots, as garden herb, or cultivated on a larger scale as a field crop for the production of essential oils. (The United States produces more than 70% of the world’s supply of spearmint.) Harvest the leaves just before the flowering stage for culinary uses. The whole plant may be used to distill essential oils.

Fresh spearmint leaves are available all year. Choose spearmint leaves that are fresh, and bright green with a spearmint scent. Avoid wilted, yellow leaves or stems that have begun to flower. At home, wash the leaves in clean running water, pat dry, and store in the vegetable compartment of the refrigerator for use within a few days. Dried spearmint is often used to prepare tea or other drinks. To dry, mint leaves are spread on the plastic sheet and dried under shade. Dried spearmint should be stored in airtight containers in cool place away from sunlight.

Spearmint has long been prized for the flavor and aroma it imparts to food. It is widely used across Europe and in large parts of Asia and Africa in flavored drinks, salads, deserts, and as a garnish.

Unlike other mint species, spearmint contains very minimal quantities in menthol, making it less harsh and pungent, and at the same time making it one of the most favored herbs in cooking, candies, and in drinks.

To use spearmint:

  • Chop fresh leaves into salad.
  • Prepare mint sauce by grinding fresh mint leaves with soy yogurt, cumin, and little salt.
  • Use it to flavor frozen deserts, jams, cakes, and jelly.
  • Brew into spearmint tea.
  • Add a small amount, chopped or ground, to cooked recipes at the last moment in order to retain its flavor and taste.

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