A practical guide for nutritional and traditional health care.
Spearmint (botanic name Mentha spicata) belongs to the mint family (Lamiaceae) and is indigenous to most of the European regions as well as places in southwest Asia. The species derives its name from the resemblance of the tips of its leaves to pointed lances or spears. However, as spearmint has been extensively cultivated since ancient ages, the precise natural variety of this species is yet to be ascertained by botanists. Spearmint is an herb-like rhizomatous (a flat, subversive stem that often sends out roots and shoots from its nodes) plant that thrives best in damp soil conditions. This is a perennial herb that grows up to a height of 30 to 100 cm. The spearmint plant is extremely invasive by nature and was first noticed in the Great Lakes way back in 1843. The stems of the spearmint plant may or may not have hair-like bristles. The plant has dense undergrowth and an extensive fleshy rhizome beneath the ground. The deep green leaves of spearmint grow up to five to nine cm in length and 1.5 to 3.0 cm in width having finely dented edges. The flowers of this species emerge on thin spikes and are found in white or pink color. Usually the flowers are 2.5 to 3.0 mm in length as well as width.
Spearmint is found to be growing in the wild in temperate climatic regions, particularly in areas that receive shade and where the atmosphere is slightly humid. The height of cultivable varieties of the species varies between one foot (30.8 cm) and three feet (1 meter). These plants bear vividly green leaves and white or lavender hued flowers in whorls on slender spikes. The spearmint plants usually blossom during the later part of the summer. As mentioned earlier, plants of this species are able to grow from the nodes of their runners wherever they come in contact with the ground and multiply rapidly. Unless checked, the plants invade the entire space very quickly. In order to restrict the rapid growth of the plants, people usually grow the plants in large well-drained pots or containers and place these pots under the ground, leaving around three inches of the containers above the ground. This process prevents the runners from running haywire under the soil as also from colonizing above the pots. Alternately, the spread of the runners may also be controlled by creating subversive barricades with plastic sheets around the roots.
Compared to all other varieties of plants in the mint family, including peppermint, Mentha spicata possesses the maximum fruity and an overpowering mint flavour. Extracts obtained from spearmint is widely used to add essence to an assortment of beverages, desserts, toothpastes, gums and mouthwashes. In addition, spearmint also forms an important ingredient of several medications. This herb is an excellent coolant and people prefer to blend it with soft drinks for its flavour and cooling effect. Taking a glass of lemonade with a drop of Mentha spicata extract on a warm day is not only pleasant to taste, but also relieves the system of uneasiness. Since ages, the leaves of the spearmint are used to prepare mint jelly that is widely served with roasted lamb.
Mentha spicata is a useful medication that is used to stop vomiting, especially during pregnancy. The herb has a mild effect and, hence, may be used to treat colic (abdominal or bowel pain) among infants. In addition, the herb has proved to be an effective remedy for colds, flu and flatulence. In fact, all species belonging to the mint family have been found to be useful in curing stomach problems and nausea. An herbal tea prepared with dehydrated spearmint leaves may be used to cure stomach disorders as well as flatulence. The tea prepared with spearmint also relieves sore throats when ingested with honey. The essential oil obtained from this herb is widely used in aromatherapy. As the essential oil is said to have a fresh and intense scent, it reportedly enhances mental attentiveness and opens up congested nasal passages and sinuses when it is breathed in as a steam bath. Since the essential oil obtained from spearmint is said to be an effective coolant, adding a drop of the oil on a wet cloth and applying it on the forehead may cause temporary relief from heat as well as aches caused by sunburn.
It may be noted that the purified essential oil extracted from spearmint leaves is believed to be ‘hot' oil and may result in a burning sensation when it is applied on the skin in excessive amounts. Hence, it is important to use caution while taking small doses of concentrated Mentha spicata essential oil internally. In fact, if the essential oil is taken in large amounts, it may prove to be noxious or detrimental for the kidneys. On the other hand, the fresh or dried out leaves of spearmint may be used freely or without any restriction to add flavour to foods, beverages and other edible products. The use of the spearmint leaves is not only considered safe, but also beneficial for the overall health.
Although spearmint has several culinary and therapeutic uses, the herb is particularly cultivated for its fragrance and the essential oil that possess carminative (alleviating flatulence) properties. The essential oil obtained from the leaves of the herb is often known as the ‘oil of spearmint'. Spearmint plants are able to withstand different conditions and, hence, have the aptitude to grow well in almost all temperate climatic zones. When the herb is grown in gardens, people usually grow the plants in containers and bury them in the ground with a view to prevent the rapid spread of its runners that may invade the entire herb garden in a short while. Spearmint plants have a preference for semi-shaded locations, but are able to thrive in various conditions ranging from total sunlit areas to almost in the shade. The herbs grow best in loamy soils having abundance of humus or organic substances. The leaves of the herb are used in different forms - garden fresh, dehydrated, dried out and powdered, whole, chopped, frozen and also preserved in oil, sugar syrup, sugar, salt and even alcohol. The leaves of spearmint need to be harvested just before the plants begin to bloom for they lose much of their aroma when the plants begin to produce flowers.
Collect the spearmint leaves either immediately before or at the precise time when the flowers begin to open up. The usual method of harvesting spearmint leaves is to cut the stalks approximately half to three-fourths way down sparing the small shoots and allowing them sufficient space to grow. However, there is some debate over the adoption of the proper method to dry the leaves. While a number of people are of the view that the leaves may be dried by placing them on diverse substances, including cloth and plastic, and keeping them under different lighting situations like sunlight or darkness. However, most prefer to dry the leaves by hanging the stalks in sunlight.
The herb forms an important ingredient in numerous blended beverages, including mint julep and the mojito. Spearmint is also used extensively in confectionery items. In the southern regions of the United States, it has become a tradition with the people to drink a sweet tea that is iced and flavoured with spearmint during the summers. It is a great coolant. In addition, companies manufacturing toothpastes and mouth fresheners use spearmint to add essence to their products. Occasionally, the herb is also used by the soap and shampoo manufacturers. Herbal medicine practitioners recommend ingestion of a tea prepared by steeping spearmint leaves for curing stomach aches and other disorders, such as bowel and abdominal pains caused by colic.
Leaves, essential oil.
Latest studies undertaken with spearmint have demonstrated that ingestion of a tea prepared with the herb is likely to be effective to heal moderate hirsutism or excessive hairiness among women. The anti-androgenic characteristics of this herb lower the intensity of free testosterone in the blood and, at the same time, not having any influence whatsoever on the entire testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA).
Several researches have been conducted to find the antifungal actions of spearmint. In fact, the essential oil obtained from spearmint has been found to possess antifungal properties, albeit to a lesser extent compared to oregano. When the Ames test was conducted, the essential oil from spearmint did not demonstrate proof of its ability to induce mutation or increase its rate (mutagenicity). In addition to being an antifungal herb, spearmint is also said to possess exceptional antioxidant characteristics. In effect, researchers found that the antioxidant actions of spearmint were equivalent to that of artificially prepared butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT). Scientists have also studied spearmint for its value as an additive to lamb meat processed by radiation method since it possesses antioxidant properties and also because it is generally used to season lamb in Indian culinary. During the course of the research, it was detected that spearmint was effectual in putting off the oxidation of fats as well as decreasing the development of thiobarbituric acids that are considered to be injurious to health.
Besides, spearmint is a widely used home-made herbal medication. Herbal medicine practitioners have customarily used a tea prepared with the leaves of spearmint to treat medical conditions, such as headaches, fevers, digestive problems as well as several other trivial maladies. The herb possesses antiemetic (a substance that suppresses vomiting or nausea), carminative (a medication that strengthens the digestive system), diuretic (a medication that induces urine flow), and regenerative, tonic as well as stomachic properties. The leaves of the spearmint ought to be collected just before the plants begin to bloom, dried and preserved for use afterward. The stems of spearmint plant may be softened by steeping in any liquid (macerate) and are useful for use as poultices on open wounds. The essential oil obtained from spearmint leaves possesses antiseptic properties, but may prove to be noxious or fatal if taken in excessive amounts. In traditional herbal medication, the stems as well as the essential oil of spearmint are used for treating cancerous growths. In fact, a poultice made with the spearmint leaves is believed to be an effective medication for tumors.
The entire spearmint plant yields an essential oil that is used for culinary as well as medicinal purposes. To be precise, the essential oil obtained from spearmint is extensively used commercially for adding essence to food as well as preparing oral hygiene products. Years back, the spearmint herb was also used as a strewing herb since it is an excellent insect repellent. In fact, rodents and mice have an extremely aversion to the smell emitted by spearmint. Hence, it is little surprising that people found the spearmint plant as an effective insect repellent and widely used it indoors as a strewing herb (scattered it all around) to keep off insects and also spread the plants in granaries to protect their grains from the rodents.
Spearmint leaves may be consumed fresh and raw or cooked. Since the spearmint possesses a potent flavour, they are commonly used for dressing salads or garnishing foods. In addition, the leaves of the herb are usually used in the preparation of ‘mint sauce' that is again used to add essence to foods. Alternately, you may also prepare an herbal tea with the fresh or dried out leaves of spearmint. The tea not only tastes pleasant, but also leaves behind a revitalizing flavour of spearmint in the mouth. In addition, consumption of this herbal tea also helps in cleaning the digestive system and makes one feel better. The essential oil obtained from the spearmint leaves is utilized to add essence to sweets, soft drinks, ice cream and other similar food products.
Habitat and cultivation
Spearmint is a perennial herb that is indigenous to the central regions of Europe, but has now been naturalized all over the United States and Canada. This species may be found growing in abundance naturally along the roads, in waste lands, especially in moist soils that receive enough of sunlight. Cultivation of spearmint is relatively easy as the plants are able to thrive in majority of the soil types as well as conditions provided the soil is not parched. This plant has a preference for sunlight, as this facilitates production of the essential oils. Nevertheless, spearmint also has the aptitude to grow in partial shade. Spearmint may be propagated by the root division method and you may undertake dividing the roots of the plants for propagation at any time of the year. The plant has an entangled creeping root system from which give out erect stems. Spearmint stems have a four-sided shape and they usually grow up to a height of two feet. The stalks of the spearmint leaves are small. The bright green leaves of the plant are crumpled, have resemblance to lances and have finely dented borders. Spearmint bears diminutive blooms that appear in clusters or whorls on the spines in the axils of the upper leaves. The color of the flowers varies from pink to lilac and they start blooming from the later part of June and continue to blossom all through August. The aerial parts of the spearmint plant are harvested as soon as the plants begin to flower. Ensure that you cut the stems a number of inches above the root in an arid day after the morning dew have evaporated. It is essential to do the harvesting before the scorching sun is able to take away any of the essential oil from the spearmint leaves. Following the harvesting, dehydrate the herb for use afterward.
As mentioned earlier, spearmint plants are easy to cultivate as they adjust to and thrive in almost all types of soils and conditions, provided the soil is not extremely dry or parched. The plants flourish in heavy clay soils that can retain some moisture. Spearmint plants have a preference for sunlit locations, which suits their requirement for producing the essential oils. However, the plants also have the aptitude to tolerate and grow in semi-shaded areas. In brief, these plants have a preference for semi-shaded areas as well as a somewhat acidic soil. Usually, spearmint is cultivated for culinary purposes in home herbal gardens, but it is also in high demand commercially and, hence, the plants are also cultivated on large-scale for their essential oils.
Spearmint plants have long crawling roots that help the herb to multiply rapidly. So, unless the random growth of these plants is restricted, they may soon invade other areas of your garden or take over it completely. If you are unable to provide the required space for their rapid growth, the best way to restrict the plants roots from spreading is to plant them in large containers having good drainage system and burying the containers in the ground. Alternately, you may also create subversive barriers encircling the roots with plastic sheets to prevent them from spreading all over the area. It is also necessary to uproot mature plants over three years, divide their roots and grow them in another location in your garden in the following season. This will keep the plants vivacious and increase the content of their essential oils. Also uproot and destroy all spearmint plants that have been infected or change color from green to yellowish.
The entire spearmint plant is aromatic and emits a potent mint scent. The diminutive flowers growing in whorls are very attractive and their color and aroma help to draw large number of bees and butterflies. When grown alongside vegetables, such as tomatoes and cabbages, spearmint plants help to protect them from being invaded by insects like cabbage root flies and other burrowing pests. It may be noted that the strong aroma of the plants also keep many animals away from them. For instance, members belonging to this genus are never or seldom bothered by the browsing deer.
Usually, many people propagate spearmint by its seeds. If you too wish to adopt this method, sow the seeds of spearmint during the spring in a cold frame. You will find that the rate of the seeds' germination is quite fast and the survivability of the seedlings too is reasonably good. Once the seedlings have grown to a certain height so that they may be handled, prick them out individually and plant them in separate containers or pots indoors for some time. When the plants have developed further, take them out of the containers and plant them in their permanent positions outdoors during the summer.
It may be mentioned here that the plants belonging to the Mentha species are extremely inclined to hybridization with other plants of the genus and, therefore, these seeds are not dependable for yielding genuine breeds. In fact, even if hybridization does take place, the seedlings of Mentha will hardly grow in a uniform manner and, hence, their content of the essential oils will differ from one plant to another. In case you are trying to grow spearmint plants having a specific aroma, it will be difficult to attain your objectives while propagating the plants by their seeds. In such cases, it is advisable to propagate spearmint by the root division process. Spearmint can be easily propagated through root division, which can be undertaken during any part of the year. Nevertheless, it is advisable to undertake root division during the spring or autumn as it would enable the plants to establish themselves relatively faster.
Practically, almost all parts of the spearmint have the aptitude to develop into new plants. If you are making large root divisions, you may directly plant them into their permanent locations outdoors. In order to have the best growth, plant the divided root in rows and keep sufficient space between two plantations as the roots of the spearmint plants grow quickly and spread to large areas. They require adequate space for healthy growth. On the other hand, if you are looking for maximum growth of plants by root division, cut the roots of a mature plant in smaller pieces, each not more than 3 cm in length. Plant these slices in individual pots or containers and place them in a cold frame indoors for a while. Once the roots have established themselves well giving out new shoots, you may plant them in their permanent positions outdoors during the summer.