Yesterday’s post was about the ancient Greek myth of how mint came into being. In the gardens and glades of the real world, there are all sorts of mints. This genus of asterid herbs is known as “Mentha” (linguists believe the name came into Greek from an extinct pre-literate Indo-European tongue). There is peppermint, catnip, and apple mint. There are spearmints, different pennyroyals, horse mint, and even something ominously called gray mint. However botanists cannot agree on how many species of mints there actually are. The different varieties hybridize so frequently (and produce such fecund offspring), that it is unclear where the species lines are.
Mints live around the world in temperate regions across Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and North America. They can reproduce asexually or through aggressive fast-growing runners. Mint flowers are white and purple “false” whorls. Every gardener is aware that mint can swiftly spread from a little pot into a nightmarish tangle of junglelike weeds. The plant is aggressive and invasive and perennial. Humankind’s ancient fondness for different mints also have further ensured that it is distributed everywhere.
Peppermint get its peppery flavor from menthol. The spiciness of pennyroyal comes from a compound called pulegone, and spearmints get their flavor from a turpenoid known as L–carvone (which is why spearmint oils can be used as solvents). These compounds are non-toxic to humans (although there are people who are allergic to mint) but they tend to powerfully effect insects. Mints can be effective insect repellants or even downright insecticidal.
I said that mint is non-toxic to people (in reasonable amounts) but that doesn’t mean the herb is not psychoactive. Increasingly it seems likely that mints are effective anti-nauseants and they might also contain potent stimulants. I hedged that sentence somewhat: despite humankind’s long love affair with this ancient herb, it has not been fully studied by science. Maybe there is a reason mint tea and candy is so popular!