Health & Wellness

A refreshing and flavorful herb

We just returned from a few days away “glamping.” We enjoyed hikes along the Deschutes, sitting by the fire, and meeting other campers and their pets. We usually eat mostly the same foods as at home, do as much precooking as possible, but often have some kind of treat food. I returned home as a result with a tummy ache, and Donna suggested I brew myself a cup of peppermint tea. We always have a jar of dried peppermint in our pantry from our garden to enjoy with a meal, or as a helpful remedy.
Drive in many Oregon farming areas and the fragrance of growing peppermint will escort you on your journey. With over 30% of the nation’s peppermint grown in Oregon, much of it in the Willamette Valley, this herb is an important part of our agricultural economy and our health. Ask any food chemist or herbalist about peppermint and you will hear of a multitude of uses for this fragrant plant in our foods and apothecaries.
Peppermint has greenish-purple lance-shaped leaves while the rounder leaves of spearmint are more of a grayish-green color. Both peppermint and spearmint offer a flavor that can be described as a cross between pepper and chlorophyll, with peppermint’s flavor being stronger and spearmint being a little cooler and more subtle.
Mint has long played an important role in the American tradition. While the Native Americans were using mint prior to the arrival of the European settlers, the early colonists brought their prized herb with them from the Old World since they had long honored it for its therapeutic properties, as well as for the delicious hot tea made from its leaves.
Used since antiquity for its culinary, medicinal and aromatic properties, mint has proved valuable over the ages. There is a Greek myth honoring mint that tells about the origins of mint as a nymph (Minthe) who was transformed into a plant by Persephone, who was jealous of her husband’s affection for Minthe. As the fable continues, Pluto imparted the mint with a fragrant aroma for Persephone to enjoy as she walked in her gardens.
This characteristic smell has made mint a popular perfuming herb and in many cultures mint has come to symbolize hospitality. In ancient Greece, mint leaves were rubbed on dining tables to welcome the guests. During my travels years ago amongst the Bedouin tribes of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, I was often welcomed into my hosts’ tent for a drink of refreshing sweetened mint tea.
The digestive support of the mint tea I drank back then and this week, may have saved me from the distress we often experience as travelers when we explore new and different foods. Randomized controlled trials have repeatedly shown the ability of peppermint teas and oil to relieve symptoms of digestive disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome, indigestion, dyspepsia and colonic muscle spasms. These healing properties of peppermint are apparently related to its smooth-muscle relaxing ability.
Peppermint contains the constituent rosmarinic acid, which has several actions that are beneficial in asthma. In addition to its antioxidant abilities to neutralize free radicals, rosmarinic acid has been shown to block the production of pro-inflammatory chemicals. It also encourages cells to make substances called prostacyclins that keep the airways open for easy breathing. Extracts of peppermint have also been shown to help relieve the nasal symptoms of allergic rhinitis.
Research has shown that the essential oil of peppermint, which is used widely as a food flavoring, also stops the growth of many different bacteria. These bacteria include Helicobacter pylori, Salmonella enteritidis, Escherichia coli O157:H7, and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Whenever possible, choose fresh mint over the dried form of the herb since it is superior in flavor. The leaves of fresh mint should look vibrant and be a rich green color. They should be free from dark spots or yellowing. When brewing a cup of mint tea, it is best to cover the cup to keep the volatile and flavorful oils from evaporating away.
Even through dried herbs and spices such as mint are widely available in supermarkets, you may want to explore the local health food stores in your area. Oftentimes, these stores feature an expansive selection of dried herbs and spices that are of superior quality and freshness compared to those offered in regular markets. Just as with other dried herbs, when purchasing dried mint try to select organically grown mint since this will give you more assurance that it has not been irradiated or treated with agricultural chemicals.
To store fresh mint leaves, carefully wrap them in a damp paper towel and place inside of a loosely closed plastic bag. Store in the refrigerator, where it should keep fresh for several days. Dried mint should be kept in a tightly sealed glass container in a cool, dark and dry place, where it will keep fresh for about nine to 12 months. A couple of drops of essential oil of peppermint added to your favorite body wash will keep you cool on hot days.
This simple and versatile herb is easy to grow. Add some to your garden and, as Persephone once did, enjoy mint’s fragrance as your stroll through your garden. Salud!



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