by Cecily Lanton, Art Studio Major
Mentha, commonly known as mint, is an oil-producing genus of plant in the Lamiaceae family that has been used by humans for over two thousand years. It grows on all continents except Antarctica, and includes eighteen species and eleven hybrids. Scotch spearmint, Native spearmint, citrate oil, and cornmint oils derived from mint plants are of extremely high economic value, particularly if isolated by physical means, which makes it “natural.” In fact, 230,000 tons are produced annually for a profit of 400 million dollars. Oils are harvested via hydrodistillation, water and steam distillation, normal steam distillation, hydrodiffusion, and expression (or cold processing). Peppermint, scotch spearmint, and native spearmint are generally produced in North America. Cornmint oils and natural menthol, meanwhile, are produced primarily in China and India. Mint is not only made into menthol, but is also used in consumer products, medicine and food. However, the harvesting of mint has some associated problems, which will be discussed later. (Lawrence, preface)
Natural menthol is usually produced from freeze crystallization of crude cornmint oil. (Lawrence 371-372) Menthol is produced primarily in China and India, but also in Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, and Vietnam. (Lawrence 371-372, 382) It is known for providing an oral cooling sensation, (Lawrence 424) and is used to flavor consumer items ranging from gum, to toothpaste, to breath mints, soap fragrances, deodorant, hair products, cleaners, chewing tobacco, snuff, and cigarettes. (Lawrence 424-425)
Mint is also used as medicine. It’s listed in the Florilegio Medicinal (Kay 225), and the US Pharmacopoeia as helping with nausea, vomiting, emission of gas, and muscle spasms (Moerman 67). It’s also used in the western world to treat ulcer pain (Moerman 61), dyspepsia, and gastric pain (Moerman 67), sometimes in the form of over the counter pharmaceuticals (Lawrence 425). However, the benefits of mint are known not only by the western school of medicine, but is also used in traditional remedies. It’s used in Jamaica for stomach aches (Steggerda 443). It’s used in Cheyenne medicine to treat headaches, stomach problems, nausea, vomiting, nose-bleed, sores, bowel cramps, fever, poisoning, sore throat, and paralysis (Record of American Folk-Lore 231). It’s used by the Nahua in Mexico as a suppository to help heal the fright ailment “nemhoutil” (Signorini 317). Mexican Americans in the Lower Rio Grande Valley in Texas you mint in “yerba buena” tea to cure the “susto” fright ailment (Trotter, 225). Mint is used in Eastern rural Quebec as an ingredient to strengthen the body, especially if one has a cold (Saillant 195).
The Navaho use mint in “tolt’cin”, used in “ket’lo” as a post-ceremonial wash during the Female Shooting Life Chant (Wyman, 651). A Chicantec township in Oaxaca, Mexico, uses mint to warm the body during menses and menstrual hemorrhage, and also in regiments in tea and bath brews to regenerate blood (Brownder 25). People in the central Andes use mint with mixed ingredients to banish bad influences during the Ccoime Fiesta of Earth Mother at Pentecost and the Fiesta de la Virgin del Carmen (Maxwell 53). The Hmong in Kansas City use a traditional Asian menthol preparation to relieve pain inflicted by sorcery (Capps 167) and also with camphor lotion as a skin application before “nkaug” needling (Capps 170). Malay people stick plaster treated with menthol to their foreheads to relieve headache (Laderman 479). Kenya Leppo’ ke of East Kalimantan, Borneo, use menthol in oils to open pores (Waldstein and Adams, S110). The Shango people in Trinidad use mint in powder taken with tea to relieve asthma (Simpson 335). Menthol medicine has also been used in ancient Japanese remedies (True 111).
Mint has also been used as food. The Hopi eat mint as relish (Fewkes 19) and eat leaves and flower as flavor (Hough 37). Lacandon people in lowland Chiapas harvest and cultivate mint, known as “tz’akash,” as a condiment (Nigh 10, 16). People on the border of Kiaan-su and Ce-kian made mint called “hu pa-ho” into tea (Laufer 198). Mint is also used in foods we may more easily recognized, such as chewing gum, confections, breath mints, beverages (alcoholic and not), ice cream, toppings, English mint sauce, and American mint jelly (Lawrence 424).
Mint has also been known in China, the indigenous variety known as “hu pa-ho” (Laufer 198), and by Mexican peoples, Mexican Americans, Papago, pima, Yaqui, Paipai, Tarahumara, and Tepehuan (Kay 251). German Bohemia and Lower Austrian children put mint in books to take to church (A.F.C. 134).
Mint was favored by the Romans, and quite often made reference to. It was present in the story of Μίνθη, a nymph lover of Hades who the goddess Persephone turned into a mint, which Hades gave a pleasant scent to. Alternatively, Persephone turned the nymph into dust, which Hades formed a mint from (Smith). This is a great example of how association, in this case part folk-lore part religious, can affect perception and conception of order, such as the believed origin of a plant. Mint was associated by the Romans with hospitality, as displayed in the story of Baucis and Phileman, who scored their table with green mint before serving food to their godly guests (Grieve), and is an example of the use of symbolism by humans. Below is an excerpt of the story of Baucis and Phileman, translated by A. S. Kline.
‘So when the gods from heaven met the humble household gods, and stooping down, passed the low doorway, the old man pulled out a bench, and requested them to rest their limbs, while over the bench Baucis threw a rough blanket….’
‘The old woman, her skirts tucked up, her hands trembling, placed a table there, but a table with one of the three legs unequal: a piece of broken pot made them equal. Pushed underneath, it countered the slope, and she wiped the level surface with fresh mint. On it she put the black and green olives that belong to pure Minerva, and the cornelian cherries of autumn, preserved in wine lees; radishes and endives; a lump of cheese; and lightly roasted eggs, untouched by the hot ashes; all in clay dishes. After this she set out a carved mixing bowl for wine, just as costly, with cups made of beech wood, hollowed out, and lined with yellow bees’ wax. There was little delay, before the fire provided its hot food, and the wine, of no great age, circulated, and then, removed again, made a little room for the second course. There were nuts, and a mix of dried figs and wrinkled dates; plums, and sweet-smelling apples in open wicker baskets; and grapes gathered from the purple vines. In the centre was a gleaming honeycomb. Above all, there was the additional presence of well-meaning faces, and no unwillingness, or poverty of spirit.’
As before mentioned, there are some issues and impacts associated with the cultivation of mint. An example is the marketing of menthol cigarettes to African Americans. 69% of African American smokers choose menthol (Turner 440), but in the 1960’s, the brand Kool was rumored to be owned by the KKK (Turner 430). Rumors continued into the 1990’s that tobacco companies increased menthol in cigarettes to increase lung cancer in African Americans (Turner, 431). This is an example of the effects of social hierarchy and racism, such as distrust and abuse of marketing. In 1989, the US Secretary of Health attacked RJ Reynold’s cigarette company over their marketing toward the marketing of menthol cigarettes toward African Americans, which contributed highly to the government’s campaign against smoking (Turner 438).
There are also some environmental concerns to think about when discussing the cultivation of mint. An example is Haryana, India, a major mint producing area (CRN India), where 82% of land is used for crop cultivation (Singh 97). Degradation of soil, vegetation, water, and food crops, waterlogging, and flooding are all issues the area faces. 60% of the area’s land has experienced issues with water-logging, salinity, and alkalinity. Haryana also suffers from fertilizer and pesticide pollution, and decrease in crop, plant, and animal diversity. (Singh 97). Rural China also suffers from water pollution, deforestation, grassland destruction, increasing soil erosion, and salinization (Rozelle, Huang, and Zhang 231-235). There is a low awareness among local Chinese agricultural officials about the issues, and in in the past, as many as sixteen official reports describe sustainability as “annual economic growth” (Rozelle, Huang, and Zhang, 240).
Mint, mint oils, and menthol are major crops of the human race, and have many uses in consumer products, medicine, and food. It has been used by many different places by many different peoples and cultures. However, the mass cultivation of mint can cause environmental issues that need to be addressed, such as sustainability, pollution, and degradation of environment. More efficient farming practices need to be be installed, as mint will likely continue to play an important part in human cultures, as it has in the past. Further studies may reveal yet more benefits and uses, and will likely continue as a remedy for various illnesses and ailments. As the future moves forward, so does culture, and so does our value of the Mentha plant.
Moroccan Mint Tea
Mint tea is a popular drink in Morocco, and it is considered a sign of hospitality. It is relatively easy to brew, taking a total of only 10 minutes to prepare, and 5 minutes to cook.
Ingredients: 10 sprigs of fresh mint, with excess for garnishing, 3 teaspoons of green tea, 3 tablespoons sugar, and 4 cups of water.
First, bring the 4 cups water to a boil. Pour a small quantity in the teapot and swish to warm the
pot. Combine the mint, green tea, and sugar in the teapot, then fill the rest of the pot with hot water. Let the tea brew for about three minutes. Fill one glass with tea, then pour back into the pot. Repeat. This helps to dissolve and distribute the sugar. Pour the tea into glasses or mugs of your choosing. Shot-glasses are similar to the Moroccan serving glasses. Pour from high above the glass so there is a foam on the tea. If there is no foam in the first glass, pour it back into the teapot and try again until there is a foam. You can garnish the tea with mint. Serve iced or hot.
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