by Rich Gray
Here's flowers for you:
Hot lavender, mints, savory, marjoram,
The marigold, that goes to bed wi' the sun,
And with him rises weeping; these are flowers
Of middle summer, and I think they are given
To men of middle age.
-Shakespeare: The Winter's Tale
They say that scent is one of the strongest triggers of memory, and one whiff of the cooling bouquet of the peppermint plant (M.x piperita) tends to back this up, as it conjures up images of candy canes and gums, grandmothers and the flame of cold air brushing across peppermint-numbed tongues and throats. Its commercial uses are probably most familiar to people, but it can also be easily grown and put to a wide variety of culinary and medicinal purposes in your own home.
Description and Cultivation
There are many different kinds of mint – spearmint, bergamot, applemint, Bowles mint – but the peppermint is generally the most widely used, and is pretty easy to identify by its purple leaves. The plant itself can grow from 1-3 feet tall or more, and consists of purplish, square stems and oblong purplish leaves with pointed tips, distinct veins, and toothed edges. It produces small pink, white, or purple flowers at the end of each stem from July to September.
Peppermint can actually be too easy to grow, and you should take care when introducing it into your garden to keep a fair amount of control over it. Peppermint spreads by sending out runners, and it can quickly take over wherever you place it and begin pushing into neighboring areas. One of the best ways to grow it is to select an isolated spot and just let it go (and go and go). You can also sink a barrel into the ground and plant the peppermint inside it, or set up some other sort of physical barrier to try and contain the roots.
Peppermint thrives best in full or partial sun, in a rich, drained loam that will retain water in summer. Not enough sun and the plant gets leggy. Not enough water or nutrients, and it can become susceptible to rust or mildew. Pests shouldn't be a problem. During the growing season, keep cutting the mint to use it fresh or dry it (if you've got the space, freezing mint is one of the best ways we've seen to retain the herb's essential oils). Since peppermint is a natural hybrid between water mint and spearmint, it doesn't produce seeds, but is easily propagated by taking root or stem cuttings (which will produce roots quickly if placed in water), or by dividing the plants in the spring or autumn. Mint is a perennial that should come back easily year to year, although if your winters get really cold, a layer of mulch to protect the plant is advised.Uses What can you do with peppermint? Better the question, what can't you do with it. As mentioned, peppermint is used commercially to flavor a wide variety of products, from mouthwash to candies, ice creams to jellies. It's traditionally used to make mint sauce that is served with roast lamb, and is quite good with new peas and potatoes, or as a garnish for fruit salad. By itself or combined with other herbs to make a tea, it can't be beat, and adding peppermint oil to baths makes for a relaxing menthol soak. Medicinally, peppermint has been used to alleviate a wide array of different conditions, including indigestion, sore throat, colds, headache, and cramps. By mildly anesthetizing the mucous membrane, it can prevent vomiting and help to quell nausea, and taken before eating it can increase bile flow, which helps to break down fats so your body can use them more effectively. It also may provide benefits for intestinal disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome. One of our favorite uses for peppermint is as a flavoring for tabouli (recipe taken from the Vegetarian Times Cookbook, Macmillan General Reference, 1984):TABOULI SALAD 3/4 cup boiling water 1/2 cup cracked wheat or bulgar 1/2 cup minced parsley 1/4 cup minced mint leaves 1/2 cup finely chopped green onion 1 tomato, diced 3 T. oil 1-2 T. lemon juice 1 t. sea salt pepper and allspice to taste Pour boiling water over wheat. Let stand 20 minutes. Add parsley, mint, onion, and diced tomato. Combine other ingredients and add to mixture, tossing to mix. Serve on lettuce. Serves 4.
© Rich Gray
About the Author
Rich Gray is a freelance writer whose publishing credits include Smart Computing Magazine, Woman's Day, and The Herb Companion. He lives in Vermont, where he owns and operates the High Acres Herb Farm.