Too much of a good thing?
There are few things more satisfying on a hot summer day than a tall glass of iced tea with mint. If you’ve ever feasted on a thick slice of lamb roast with a generous slab of homemade mint jelly you know the meaning of the word decadence. However, if your mint patch decides to encroach on more territory your opinion of the aromatic square stemmed herb might take a step back, maybe several steps.
We have numerous exotic species of mint that have found their way into our landscape. To us they are all wild, but there is only one native species, the wild or field mint, (Mentha arvensis). The genetic variability of this species is large. Some ecotypes have a slightly bitter aftertaste and others are tame.
The easiest way to distinguish this species from cultivated ones like spearmint (Mentha spicata) is by observing the flowers. Cultivated mints have most of their bloom at the stem tips. The flowers of field mint are borne in the axils of the leaves. Flower color varies from white to pink to purple. The leaves also vary from quite hairy to almost an absence of pubescence. The shiny leaved ecotypes bear strong resemblance to their popular relative, Peppermint (Mentha piperita).
Nearly all mints spread vigorously by seed and by creeping underground and above ground stems. Because of this they are invasive and their cultivation should be monitored closely in your garden. Even a tiny sprig can root and form a new plant in as little as a week.
Several herbicides are labeled to control field mint and its exotic cousins. However, most perennial weeds that spread rapidly by seed and vegetative parts are tough to control even with proven chemicals.
On the positive side, I like to consume mint fresh if possible, but it can be dried and stored in a sealed container for future use. I feel it loses flavor and potency even under the best curing conditions. This is especially true for candy, jelly, and tea. Dried mint isn’t objectionable when used to spice meats and cassaroles.
Menthol is the main chemical extracted from field mint and is used worldwide for various ailments. Menthol related chemicals are found in numerous types of products such as food, drinks, skin creams, cough preparations, and cigarettes. Candy, jelly and tea are my favorite uses.
Medicinally, mint has been used throughout history from one end of the body to the other. It is used for oral care, upset stomach and flatulence. Extracts can be applied topically to soothe muscle pain and spasms.
Numerous scientific studies show wild mint has antispasmodic, carminative, cholagogic, and antimicrobial properties, as well as cooling effects on the skin. The oil contains 95% of menthol and offers cytotoxic properties. Mints show great promise for insect and disease control; I hope the research continues.
Used in their natural form mints are totally safe, but extracting the oils and using them internally can be a different story. A dosage of 2 grams of pure menthol can be fatal. Avoid mega doses of most things.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.