So I have taken a while to get out the next installment of the Alp-Herb-et. I debated over this one as there are so many worthy ‘M’ herbs to choose from. Mullein was my first choice but Sarah Lawless has already covered that one in her great article on a beautiful plant! So I thought about Marshmallow (Althaea officinalis) with its mucilaginous fibres and underworld attributes, then Mandrake…one of my favourite ‘dark’ herbs with more lore than I can possibly scribble into one small blog. In the end I settled on Mint (Mentha Sp). I adore the scent, I grow Mint in abundance and it exists in many forms in many parts of the world. Most people already grow it (or can easily grow it) and could certainly identify it even if they’re not already familiar.
There are several varieties of Mint common today, Spearmint and Peppermint being probably the most widely grown. However there is Water Mint, Moroccan Mint, Penny Royal, Apple Mint, Horse Mint, Pineapple Mint and even Chocolate Mint! I stumbled across the following website recently from a specialist Mint nursery here in the UK which lists over 15 varieties of Mint for sale!!
For the purpose of this instalment however I shall be focusing on Spearmint (also called Common or Garden Mint Mentha viridis / Mentha spicata) and Peppermint (Mentha piperita).
Growth and Cultivation
The Mints are part of the broader Lamiaceae family. Confusion often arises because the Lamiaceae family is often called the ‘Mint family’ which includes 236 genera; plants like Hyssop (Hyssopus sp.) Thyme (Thymus sp.), Dead Nettle (Lamium sp.) and Lavendar (Lavendula sp.) are but a few examples….which are clearly not remotely minty! What I am discussing here are the actual mints, the Mentha species, so that’s all those that smell unmistakably pungent and minty (anyone who has had a breathe mint will know what I’m on about and I’m guessing that’s gotta be 99.9% of the population right?!)
All Mints have a very similar growth habit…and that’s boisterous! Beware folks….grow Mint in pots above ground or even pots sunken into the soil unless you are prepared to spend the majority of your time trying to contain and control the beast!
I hear rumours that Mint is not easily cultivated by seed, I’ve never tried but seriously that’s not an issue as one plant will keep you in Mint for the rest of your life and probably every life thereafter. If you can’t get hold of a plant let me know and I’ll send you a root which will soon fill any space you give it failing that try the link given above or your local supermarket may stock potted herbs. Mint spreads itself via runners…fibrous roots which lay only under the first few of inches of soil run away from the main plant and send up stems from beneath the soil…they do this rapidly and I have known mint roots so tough they have pierced vinyl pond liners!
I grow three types of mint: Garden or Spearmint, Peppermint and Moroccan Mint (a variation on the usual spearmint which is AMAZING fresh in teas) and I grow all three in a very large terracotta pot all together. They all get on remarkably well, all being of equal vigour, all being herbaceous and of equal growing season and look very attractive (although the Moroccan mint looks pretty much identical to the Garden or Spearmint but has a slightly stronger, fresher fragrance)
I also grow water mint in the pond which is equally as rampant but just as gorgeous smelling! (Again be warned if growing water mint…it will take over the entire pond or bog garden if allowed!) and Corsican mint with its tiny, tiny leaves almost growing as flat as the ground itself which I grow in amongst the patio slabs so when we tread on it we are hit with the most camphorous minty scent I have ever known….Corsican mint is by far one of the most distinctive I think!
Anyway…my main three mint ‘herbs’ grow to approximately 12 inches tall in a good year, seldom any bigger and the pot they are in is almost 2 feet in diameter and slightly taller which they quickly fill. Once every two to three years in the spring when the Mints are starting to emerge after their winter slumber (so I can just about identify them) I empty the pot, divide the plants and repot in lots of free draining fertile, humous rich compost….Mints are hungry, hungry plants and love well-rotted manure, garden compost and so on. You can tell when they have scoffed their way through that and filled the container as they never seem to come back quite as strongly each spring. A good idea is to leave a 6 inch space between the soil and the pot rim when you first plant. Then you can top dress with 3” of fresh manure or compost each spring…by the time you get the top of the pot the plants can be re-potted entirely the following spring. In case you haven’t gathered, Mint will die back somewhat in the autumn/ winter at which point it can be cut back hard to ground level.
Apparently Mint prefers cool partial shade, however I grow mine in full sun at the moment and because they are in a pot I tend to move them around. If they look like they are getting a bit baked I move them into the shade, if they are looking a little insipid I move them into more light. To be honest I don’t think Mint is that fussy about sunlight and will do OK in just about any position providing it’s not too extreme.
Mint produces flowers in the summer, around July – August and its flowers are reminiscent of a Buddleia in shape and form only much smaller, much more delicate but with the same conical shape and with equal appeal to Bees as are Mint’s close relatives Lemon Balm / Melisa and Catnip (Nepeta Sp.) so should be grown for that if for no other reason!!! (Yes folks…He’s on His ‘Bee’ soap box again).
The first and the only herb I can remember my Mum growing and using in the Kitchen when I was small is Mint… in fact it’s the only herb she grows still in a small pot outside her back door. (Funny considering she’s a Libran and Mint is a herb of Air but more on that in a mo!) . Mint was used in Mum’s kitchen in two places only (she’s not a lover of cooking or gardening!) … in the potatoes and with Lamb. One of Spearmint’s other names is ‘Lamb Mint’ because of its use as the traditional accompaniment to the Sunday Lamb joint which many of us Brits still expect on the table today either as Mint Sauce or Mint Jelly if you’re a bit more posh!
Personally I cannot enjoy a roast leg of lamb without Mint sauce on the table. Mum also adds a bunch of mint to the water the salad or new potatoes are boiling in…I don’t find it adds a strong flavour, but imparts a subtle fragrance to the spuds. If however you like a stronger flavour, some finely chopped mint (and Chives) is yummy in the potato salad. I also love minted peas but other legumes and pulses such as broad beans etc take mint well (as does cous cous!)
My favourite recipe for Mint Sauce can be found here and is by the Grand Dame of Cooking…the one and only…Mary Berry! (the recipe is ridiculously simple and I personally like a tad more vinegar than stated!)
Still on the semi-savoury theme Mint and Yoghurt makes a really nice dip especially alongside spicy middle or far eastern food as mint (along with cucumber which it also goes well with) has a cooling effect on the pallet (and digestion).
Mint can also be used in sweets and desserts….Mint ice cream instantly comes to mind as well as Peppermint Creams, Mint Sorbet and Mint is also really good with Summer fruits, especially summer fruit pudding (just steep a few leaves in with the fruits as they simmer!) and chocolate.
Mint tea I have mentioned briefly above, the fresh leaves steeped in hot (not boiling) water is really refreshing in the summer as is a good bunch in iced tea or Pimms along with Lemon Balm and Borage.
And finally I have to mention my favourite cocktail…The Mojito in which Mint is one of the primary ingredients (FYI I adore a well-made Mojito!! It has to be the freshest mint squashed with fresh lime and brown Demerara sugar!!)
Despite its versatility in the garden and in the kitchen I don’t actually use the Mints for a great deal medicinally. Now that doesn’t mean the Mints couldn’t be used for a great deal more and I would encourage anyone interested to do more research. Staying true to type however I am only going to share what I have had personal experience (and success) with.
Peppermint Essential Oil is a must for the first aid kit. It cools when you feel hot, and warms when you feel cold and a few drops in a warm bowl of water is the BEST foot soak especially if you have been on your feet for hours! But also added to the bath water in the summer when hot and sweaty or in the winter when chilled to the bone.
I also use Peppermint essential oil mixed in with plain, fragrance free hand and or foot creams for the same cooling, soothing effect.
In massage, Peppermint essential Oil is great for those suffering with colds and flu as it helps clear the air ways (along with Eucalyptus and Lemon for example), and headaches. Massage with Peppermint Oil (2 drops to 5 ml carrier) is also good for athletes or dancers who occasionally experience hot and inflamed joints or muscles…a herbal warm up / warm down if you will. The diluted essential oil can be used (with Fennel for example) directly onto bloated tummies that have over indulged and eaten too much, say, around Christmas!
The main reason to keep a bottle of Peppermint essential oil handy however is its cooling effect on burns including sunburn. One drop of Peppermint essential oil and one drop of lavender oil (Lavender soothes and aids healing without scaring) mixed in a teaspoon of St John’s Wort (macerated) oil is the Bee’s knees for burns! Keep it handy!
Now if you don’t have Peppermint essential oil, then many of the therapeutic attributes will of course be in the herb itself. You can use a poultice or compress with the herb in the same way you would use the essential oil. If you have a headache or sunburn for example, make a strong infusion of mint, chill it and use it as a cold compress, if you have a cold, use a warm compress applied to the chest…easy common sense.
The other application for Mint is as a herbal tea or infusion. I do dry Peppermint and Moroccan Mint to use over winter but in the summer I always use the fresh herb. I gather a few good lush stems (with thanks of course!!) and put them straight in my pot and cover with hot (never boiling) water, leave to infuse for 5 minutes and sip slowly. It’s perfect after a heavy meals as it aids digestion and gets rid of that heavy bloated feeling almost instantly. In a world where people expect miracles, it’s no wonder Peppermint tea is one of the most popular commercially available herbal teas and is now offered in most restaurants. The tea is also good to refresh and clear the head, especially on those British oppressive and humid summer days but you can also use the herb in iced tea etc to the same effect.
As always one should always seek medical advice before using herbs to treat a serious ailment, and are best avoided altogether when pregnant or nursing. I am not a doctor or a qualified herbalist…just a Witch who happens to love herbs so much I want to tell the world all about them!
Mint is an old herb…first mentioned in Egyptian Papyri in 1550 BCE as a healing herb. In Greek Mythology Mint was so named after Minthe, a female spirit who dwelt in the Cocytus river in Hades (the Cocytus river being ‘The River of Wailing’, one of the five underworld rivers). She was turned into a Mint plant by a rather jealous Persephone after her husband Hades was found flirting with her. In a fit of pity Hades also gave her the pleasing scent so when she was walked on (probably Corsican Mint?) she gave off a scent as great as her beauty.
As far as Mint’s magical associations go, there appear to be two main schools of thought; Culpeper and everyone else.
Culpeper assigns Mint (Spearmint) to the planet Venus the planet of Love, affection, femininity and the Natural World. Other than Mint’s pretty pastel pinkish flowers, I’m not really sure why… I tend to slightly disagree with the honourable Culpeper on this one however if one wishes to follow Culpeper’s assignation then Mint would be of course be associated with all things under Venus’ dominion.
I tend to agree more with the Occultists. In his famous book of correspondences (although not really ‘his’ as such) ‘Liber 777’, Aliester Crowley shows Mint as being assigned to the Element of Air and Path 11 on the Tree of Life (Qabbalah). No wonder Peppermint lifts a heavy, bloated stomach! More significantly however is that Air (the Hebrew Letter Aleph) is one of the three Mother Letters, and Path 11 joins the First Emanation to the Second. I refer you to The King James Bible, The Book of Genesis Chapter 1 Verse 1-2
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters…”
This movement sums up primal Air….the Hebrew letter Aleph all those forces to which Mint has been assigned…It is breath, spirit…life!
What’s interesting to note however is that Venus (assigned to Mint by Culpeper) rules Libra which is an Air Sign, the sign of Balance. Path 11 in Qabbalah is assigned to The Fool in Tarot and the Number 0 and therefore wholeness / balance…a tenuous link maybe…??
So what does all this jargon tell us about Mint’s magical uses? Mint strikes me as a bit of a peace maker, a herb to encourage harmony. Perhaps to improve a relationship or ease tensions between loved ones? Maybe to improve clarity of feeling…or maybe to help make a choice when the heart is torn between two loves? When stuck in a rut or life has become stagnant, a little of Mint’s freshness could blow away the cobwebs?
Now all the above is just a bit of instinctive reasoning on my part (if there is such a thing), I doubt you will find much of that confirmed in any book…all part of the semi intuitive approach to magic.
Many published sources, Including Scott Cunningham’s ‘Encyclopaedia of Magical Herbs’ quote Mint as being a Mercurial herb and it’s difficult to know how this has come about. Has it been assigned to Mercury just because Mint is assigned to Air and Mercury is also considered Airy? It’s highly likely and we should be wary when making such associations. After all, the astrological signs of Gemini, Libra and Aquarius are all considered ‘Air signs’ but they aren’t all ruled by Mercury and Mint wouldn’t be associated with all three either. There are different tables of correspondence and it can get confusing, my advice is find one that suits and stick to it and use it always in conjunction with instinct. And don’t accept everything you read as fact…think about it not everything has to correspond to everything else!!
Mint, as it appears under the dominion of Mercury, however would be associated with Travel and commerce and can be used in magical workings to promote business or for protection during travel. I have read recently that it is also associated with prosperity and money because of its green colour! (C’mon…!!)
Either way, It’s up to the individual to decide for themselves whether planetary, elemental, qabbalistic or even if the doctrine of signatures is more useful… just try not to get too bogged down in it, easier said than done with a herb as well known and popular as Mint. I can’t stress the importance of growing herbs, getting to know herbs for yourself and more importantly working with them…they know better than any table of correspondence!