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Peppermint is a familiar herb known for its aromatics and healthful qualities. Commonly found in herb gardens, peppermint leaves have been used in the culinary and healing arts for centuries. Peppermint is thought to be a natural hybrid between spearmint and water mint resulting in one of the most popular herbs employed today.
Mentha x piperita is thought to be a naturally occurring hybrid between spearmint and water mint. Native to Europe and the Middle East, peppermint has been naturalized around the globe and is a common sight in most herb gardens. Peppermint is an herbaceous perennial with square stems, dark green leaves, and spikes of small, purple flowers. Rhizomatous by nature, peppermint is fast-growing and can quickly spread. Thriving especially well in moist habitats, this member of the Lamiaceae family can be identified along stream banks in the wild. The leaves and stems of peppermint contain volatile oils, one of which is menthol, giving the herb its recognizable fragrance and cooling sensation.
Peppermint propagates by means of its long, running roots from which are produced smooth, square stems from 1 to 3 feet in height, erect and branching. The leaves are from 1 to 2 inches long, about half as wide, pointed, and with sharply toothed margins. The plant is in flower from July to September. The small purplish blossoms are placed in circles around the stem, forming thick, blunt spikes.
Peppermint thrives in cool shaded areas without much direct sun light. If you harvest just before the plant flowers, the level of essential oils will be at a peak. This provides the greatest flavor and medicinal benefits. This plant needs lots of water and it is often found naturalized by streams and ponds where the soil is rich and the drainage is good. It won’t tolerate dry conditions. While partial sun is sufficient for peppermint, planting it in full sun will increase the potency of its oils and medicinal qualities. Wait until the plant is around 10 inches tall before you begin to harvest leaves.
According to ancient Greek legend, the genus Mentha was named after the nymph, Minthe, who was the lover of the God of the Underworld. When Pluto’s wife heard of the affair, she killed Minthe in jealously, but Pluto brought her back as a fragrant plant (mint) to remember her by.
In ancient Greece and Rome, peppermint was used as an adornment at feasts and was often employed as a flavoring for wines and sauces. The fragrant plant also has a history of use as a strewing herb and was placed on the floors of homes for its strong aromatics. Peppermint oil is still employed in many cultures today to stimulate and enliven the mind.
Peppermint has been employed for its beneficial uses since the times of ancient Rome. While this familiar plant is often distilled for its volatile oils, peppermint leaf remains a go-to herb in home apothecaries and gardens around the world. Peppermint has a long history of use in traditional healing practices as a tonic to support the daily functioning of the digestive tract and for its uplifting and refreshing aromatics. Peppermint tea is often drunk after meals and the leaf added to improve the flavor of herbal formulations while imparting its healthful qualities.
A versatile and enjoyable herb, peppermint can be found in chewing gums, candies, toothpastes, energy drinks, herbal teas, and so much more. Invigorating and refreshing, leaves plucked directly from the plant were once chewed to freshen the breath. Peppermint has even been distilled into liqueurs and enjoyed as a post-meal digestif.