Myth of Mint
Mint derives its name from the ancient Greek mythical character “Minthe.” According to Greek myth, Minthe was a river nymph. Hades, the God of the Underworld, fell in love with Minthe. Unfortunately for Minthe, Hades’ wife, Persephone, found out and turned Minthe into a lowly plant, to be crushed by everyone who walked upon her. Hades, powerless to undo the spell, was at least able to bestow a magnificent aroma on Minthe so that whenever he trod on her the air was filled with her scent.
With the popularity of mint today, it would appear that Persephone’s revenge hasn’t paid off very well. There are now hundreds of varieties of mint, it can quickly take over a garden if not contained, and it is one of the most widely used herbs for soothing a great deal of ailments including anything from heartburn and indigestion to the common cold and bad breath.
Originating in Asia and the Mediterranean, the Greeks used to clean their banquet tables with mint, while the Romans used it in their food sauces and as an aid to digestion. In Rome, Pliny recommended that students wear a wreath of mint as it was thought to exhilarate the mind. While Pliny, Hippocrates and Aristotle all considered mint to be a discouragement to procreation, the Greeks thought that mint encouraged sexual behaviour and forbade its consumption by their soldiers.
During the Middle Ages, powdered mint leaves were used to whiten teeth. And, when European settlers came to the New World they found that the Native Americans were already aware of the importance of mint, though they were growing a different species indigenous to North America. In some African and Arab countries, mint still symbolises hospitality and when guests arrive is offered as a sign of welcome and friendship in the form of Touareg or Moroccan mint tea. And, in Spain, Central and South America, mint was—and still is—known as hierba buena, literally “good herb.”
Mint continues to be used in today’s medicines, manufactured products and as a food additive. It can be found in everything from toothpastes and shower gels to teas, jellies, syrups, candies and ice creams. Mint’s essential oil (menthol, present in its leaves) is often used in flavourings, breath fresheners, chewing gum, cosmetics and perfumes and is popular in aromatherapy.
Due to its anti-inflammatory properties, mint can also be used to treat insect bites and minor burns and can also be called upon as an environmentally friendly insecticide because of its ability to kill some common pests like wasps, hornets and ants. The most common types of mint that are grown for culinary and medicinal purposes are spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint, pineapple mint, apple mint, orange mint and Swiss mint.
With such a colourful history, its hundreds of varieties and hybrids, a seemingly unending assortment of uses and exploited in cultures around the world, mint will likely outlive us all. Hats off to Minthe—may she forever fill the air with her pleasant perfume!