Mints and the green time of the year

One of the joys of autumn and winter in southern Australia is the greening of the landscape. Here the summers are hot and dry and the garden shuts down into survival mode. Grass goes brown, plants wilted or go to seed. Mint and lemon balm go underground and you think that they are gone forever. Come autumn mist and rain and the landscape goes green, the garden flowers and herbs re-emerge and thrive! We have a growing season from May through to October, plenty of time to plant, harvest and preserve herbs for the summer months when the mints die back and retreat underground.

Home grown herbal medicine

In my garden I have mints ( common, spearmint and peppermint), Vietnamese mint (which isn’t really a mint) lemon balm and white horehound (these two are related to mints, in the Laminaceae family). In the next couple of website postings I’d like to explore the culinary and medicinal properties of these herbs, as many of us will have these growing (or could be inspired to plant them). So many of the herbs provide cheap, effective and easily prepared home ‘medicines’and it’s a shame not to use them.  Here I’ll look more at the medicinal properties of the herbs, although there is a big overlap between food and medicine in the herbal world. 


Use of home grown Herbal remedies: Nicholas Culpepper


Herbal medicine that we use today really came into its own in England in the 17th century, largely due to the work of Nicholas Culpepper, an apothecary (pharmacist) who translated the British Pharmacopeia from Latin into English, and published this so that it was available to the wider population. He passionately believed that cheap, readily available herbal remedies should be used whenever possible, rather than expensive exotic drugs. 

Working amongst the poor, Nicholas realised that treatment had to be inexpensive and readily available, contributing to his belief in "English herbs for English bodies".

This set him at odds with the medical establishment of his day, and his thoughts on this are still relevant, when herbal and complementary medicine is often challenged by the practitioners of allopathic medicine. 

“They are bloodsuckers, true vampires, have learned little since Hippocrates; use blood-letting for ailments above the midriff and purging for those below. They evacuate and revulse their patients until they faint. It is surprising that they are so popular and that some patients recover’’.

Culpeper’s books have remained major sources of information since the 1600s. For a more modern approach, that includes Culpepper’s information, my favourite herbal reference book is Mrs Maud Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, first published in 1931. This was my first herbal book, bought some 30 years ago, and I’m into my second (hardback) copy, since my first paperback has fallen apart due to constant use. This book is full of history, folklore and still relevant herbal medicine. Another favourite, although really a history book, is Barbara Griggs Green Pharmacy.


Mints and are some of the most ancient Mediterranean herbs, recorded use dates from in Greek and Roman times (BC) in cooking, as deodorants and tooth whiteners and in medicine to treat digestive problems. Mint as aromatherapy is also good for the brain. In ancient  Rome, Pliny recommended a wreath of mint for students to wear since it was thought to "exhilarate their minds". Culpepper, quoted by Mrs Grieve, noted that mint ‘being smelled is comfortable for the head and memory and a decoction when used as a gargle, cures the mouth and gums when sore. Culpepper listed more than 40 maladies for which mint is “singularly good”. 

Mint, Peppermint, spearmint: what’s the difference?

 Common garden mint (Mentha viridis) is a cultivar derived from Mediterranean stock, imported into Britain by the Romans and probably taken to America with the Pilgrim fathers. Garden mint has since “gone native” all over Europe, UK and USA and Australia, often being regarded as a weed (as are many of the best herbs!) due to its spreading habit and indestructible root system. The distinctive smell of garden mint is due to menthol, but it has relatively low levels of this and is more often used in cooking than in medicinal preparations. Many cooks like to add chopped mint leaves to scrambled eggs, and omelettes. Add the mint at the end of cooking of scrambled eggs or omelets. Too much heat will turn the mint bitter 

“Known in Greek mythology as the herb of hospitality,one of mint's first known uses in Europe was as a room deodorizer.The herb was strewn across floors to cover the smell of the hard-packed soil. Stepping on the mint helped to spread its scent through the room. Today, it is more commonly used for aromatherapy through the use of essential oils”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mentha


Peppermint, is a sterile triple hybrid of M. aquatica and M. spicata (this latter a hybrid of M suaveoltens and M. longifolia) It has the stongest mint flavour. It has smaller, glossier  leaves and grows in a more compact form, lower to the ground than common mint.

 “The entire plant has a very characteristic odour, due to the volatile oil present in all its parts, which when applied to the tongue has a hot aromatic taste at first and afterwards produces a sensation of cold in the mouth caused by the menthol it contains”(Mrs Greive). 

Peppermint extract, oils and infusions were widely used as a digestive therapy and to treat mouth and skin infections. The leaves, stems and distilled oil are used extensively as food and drink flavouring. In herbal medicine, the infused leaves and essential oils are used to aid digestion, as a calmative (to relax spasms in the intestine) effective in treating gall bladder problems. Peppermint oil is also anti-microbial and antifungal, is commonly used in mouth washes and in cough lozenges and topical ointments. A recent review of clinical trials of peppermint tea supported the traditional use of peppermint to treat gastrointestinal and respiratory tract inflammation (McKay and Blumberg 2006) and anti-HIV activity has been reported for peppermint aqueous extracts (Geuenich et al. 2008).

Phytochemistry The essential oil contains menthol (30-40%), menthone (15-30%) menthyl acetate (10%), menthofuran, flavonoids, tannins (6-12 %), triterpenes and bitter substances (van Wyk and Wink 2004: Mills and Bone 2000). The antioxidant properties of peppermint have been verified in laboratory studies 

 (Natural herbs and supplements 3rd ed Braun and Cohen 2010). 

Spearmint (Mentha spicata) The cultivar Mentha spicata 'Nana', the nana mint of Morocco, possesses a clear, pungent, but mild aroma, and is an essential ingredient of Touareg tea (see below). It has rougher edges on the leaves and grows in a taller, more straggly manner than peppermint and garden mint. It has a minderflovour and distinctive smell. The most abundant compound in spearmint oil is R-(–)-carvone, which gives spearmint its distinctive smell. Unlike peppermint oil, oil of spearmint contains minimal amounts of menthol and menthone. It is used as a flavoring for toothpaste and confectionery, and is sometimes added to shampoos and soaps.

A couple of “medicial’remedies: Mint Julips and Touareg tea

Mint Julips

“The mint julep was originally prescribed and appears in literature as early as 1784 for "sickness at the stomach, with frequent retching, and, at times, a difficulty of swallowing. (Medical communications: Volume 1 - Page 242 by Society for Promoting Medical Knowledge in 1784). The term "julep" is generally defined as a sweet drink, particularly one used as a vehicle for medicine. The word itself is derived from the Persian word گلاب (Golâb), meaning rose water. Americans enjoyed not only bourbon-based juleps during the nineteenth century, but also gin-based juleps made with genever, an aged gin. Jerry Thomas' Bartenders Guide (1887) includes a recipe for the mint julep allowing for brandy, gin or whiskey.”


Ingredients needed for traditional mint juleps:

 From http://www.senioryears.com/mint.html  

* 5 med. fresh mint leaves (any variety) plus one fresh sprig for garnishing 

* 1 1/4 teaspoon sugar 

* 2 tablespoon cold water

* Finely crushed ice 

* 2 full ounces Kentucky Bourbon 


Place the mint leaves, sugar and water in an 8 ounce silver julep cup or highball glass. With the back of a spoon, lightly crush the mint, and then stir until the sugar dissolves. Pour in the bourbon and pack the glass tightly, with crushed ice. With a long-handled spoon, gently jiggle the mixture to mix the ice and bourbon together until the outside of the container becomes frosted. For the finishing touch, garish with a sprig of fresh mint before serving.

Makes 1 drink. (a traditionalist and true julep connoisseur would remove the crushed mint leaves before serving)

Moroccan mint tea 

From http://www.rivertea.com/blog/touareg-tea-moroccos-favorite-beverage/

The essential ingredient of Touareg tea is spearmint,  Mentha spicata or the ‘Nana’ mint originating in Morocco, that has a tangy but mild aroma. Along with the fresh mint leaves, a strong green tea, such as the Chinese gunpowder, is usually used for preparing this beverage.

The tea is commonly served very hot and sweet. Tea drinking is more than just a custom in Morocco, it is also a tool used in sales and commerce. If you find yourself in a Morrocan or Egyptian market, don’t be surprised if you are sat down and offered a glass of mint tea by the vendor who is trying to sell you a carpet. It is also good to keep in mind that it is impolite to refuse or start negotiating the price during the serving.


Preparation and serving

Although in Arab regions cooking is considered women’s business, the tea is prepared by the male head of the family and offered to guests in at least three servings.

The preparation process is a complex, but intense ritual that really connects you to the spirit of the tea. Here’s how it goes:


Gunpowder green tea


Fresh mint leaves

Boiled water

Metal teapot and small glasses for serving


First add the gunpowder into the metal teapot. Wash it out for about 20 to 30 seconds with boiled water, then pour the water out and save it for later.

Clean the tea with boiling water for a minute and pour it out just like before. This process should be repeated a couple of times, because it decreases the bitterness of the tea.

After it is cleaned, add the first water, the one used in the first cleansing, along with sugar, some mint leaves and more boiled water. Put the metal pot on fire and let it boil for a while, as this will increase the aroma of the tea. Then, allow it to cool down for three to five minutes and pour the beverage in three glasses; empty them back into the pot, in order to spread the flavor equally.

Now  you can enjoy the tea, with or without sugar, depending on your taste. For a final touch, add some fresh mint leaves to your glass and pour the tea on top of them from a distance.


Benefits of Touareg mint tea

Why should you try Touareg tea? Not only you’ll take part in an exotic ritual, but you’ll also enjoy the numerous health benefits of this delicious beverage. Here’s what the Moroccan tea is good for:

1. It is one of the best herbs aiding the digestive system: it relaxes the stomach muscles and stimulates the secretion of digestive juices.

2. It has cleansing properties, aiding your system in getting rid of bad bacteria.

3. It’s relaxing and calming for you mind as well, reducing anxiety and tension.

4. A study showed peppermint tea helped drivers stay more alert and relaxed in traffic.

5. The aroma can help relieve symptoms of headaches and colds.

Touareg is definitely an experience for tea lovers to try out, especially great in this time of the year thanks to its refreshing, minty aroma. Follow the Moroccan hospitality habits and invite friends over for a mint tea party! Since you already learned something new about this country and the core of these people, you’ll surely be able to fascinate your guests with an interesting Moroccan-flavored story!





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