Mint is one of the largest groups of herbaceous perennials, comprising more than 600 individual varieties around the world. While the plant group is made up of 11 distinct species, this Eurasian-African native has been hybridized and cultivated since before Roman times, resulting in hundreds of named cultivars, crosses and selections. The plant can be aggressive, since its rhizomous growth habit allows it to spread quickly. Today, mint leaves have many different uses, as well as a long and storied history.
Many mint species are quite cold hardy, such as peppermint, which grows as far north as USDA zone 3. Mint prefers sunny sites, though it will tolerate light shade. While the plant prefers moist soils, mints also tend to be tolerant of soil condition extremes, such as periodic drought or flooding. Peppermint and spearmint are two of the United States' most important essential oil crops, along with citrus and spice oils like nutmeg, pepper and allspice.
Historical Uses for Mint Leaves
According to ancient Greek and Roman mythology, the plant is named after the nymph Minthe, who was transformed by the god Hades into mint after her death. In the Bible, mint is noted as an acceptable form of tithe payment, and the plant was also strewn on church and synagogue floors even into modern times. Romans used mint for flavorings but also regarded it as a symbol of welcome. In medieval times, mint was used along with rushes and other aromatic herbs to hide foul odors in and around the home.
Mint Flavor Uses
Mint is known primarily for its use in flavorings, such as peppermint and spearmint used in candies. The essential oil in peppermint, menthol, is a powerful aromatic oil that is used not only to flavor the ubiquitous holiday candy cane, but also is used in breath fresheners, cigarettes, cold sore medicines, itch-relief lotions and mouthwashes. Mint leaves are also a common ingredient in uncaffeinated herbal teas; peppermint is said to relieve indigestion, reduce flatulence and relieve some effects of ulcerative colitis.
Menthol Overdose Precautions
Though menthol in products like toothpaste, mouthwash, medications and confections is usually at a very low concentration, some individuals may experience overdose-like reactions when ingesting or applying products containing menthol. Shortness of breath, blood in the urine, dizziness, rapid heartbeat, convulsions, diarrhea and vomiting are symptoms of menthol overdose, and affected individuals should seek immediate emergency care.
Other Mint Leaf Uses
Mint grown at home can be used to flavor oils and vinegars; crushed and scattered about the cupboards, mint supposedly helps repel invading mice and other household pests. In the garden, mint is said to reduce aphid populations when an infestation on roses or other affected plants is sprayed with mint-infused water. When crushed and mixed with a cosmetic oil, mint may help relieve migraine headaches as well as facial or other muscular tension.