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Peppermint (Mentha Piperita) is a mint from Britain that, like the others, was brought over by colonists -- an immigrant like themselves -- for its usefulness in cooking (and medical virtues it was believed to have). Like the other mints here, it escaped, found all sorts of conditions where it could flourish, and is now a welcome weed that likes sun and tends to grow tall and rangy. It has a tangy, minty flavor, that will be familiar from its use in peppermint candy. (Synthetics mimic it now.) It escaped, through seed and through the ease with which it forms roots from cut stems, and is now a wild plant, "naturalized" all over the U.S. and much of Canada.

Left is Spearmint or Mentha viridis an immigrant that (together with chicle) made the fortune of a man named Wriggley. It's the taste of chewing gum and toothpaste, still.

Right is Pennyroyal or Mentha pulegium. It grows about a foot high. For European women, Pennyroyal has long been a women's herb taken in teas for menstruation and childbirth ease. As a candy, its strong flavor is not as popular as peppermint, but as a cooking herb it is excellent.

Naturalized means that the plants have gone wild, are weeds (if you so regard them). Gathering and use of any of these 3 escaped immigrants may provide a wild substitute for traditional native mints -- certainly it has to many people. For example, the Great Plains teems with pennyroyal and peppermint, now, that are (by women who still do wild gathering) considered the same as the older native horsemints of the prairies.

There is an American pennyroyal, too, which is a native. It's the one most often called "squaw mint" by pejorative types. Its botannical name is Hedeoma pulegioides. It smells sweeter and tastes better than the European immigrant, and makes one of the best teas. It likes dry, sterile, acid soil, and is probably the main mint of the Plains. It is small, 6-12" high, with small, oval, edge-toothed leaves. Its lavendar flowers are born right where the pairs of leaves join the stem, as in the picture. It's best gathered in June-July when in flower. Dry in shade. Use 1 tsp of dried mint for each cup boiling water poured over it. Generally a women's remedy tea, also said to be good for headaches, colds, etc., but primarily drink it for pleasure.

In supermarkets now, as well as health foods stores, fresh mint will be found. It's not any of these wild species, it's cultivated types with rounder leaves and more succulent stems. But the wild mints can be used in any recipes calling for mint. Since bought mint is pretty expensive, and it's stone easy to grow indoors, sprigs of store-bought mint may be rooted in a glass jar of water in a sunny windowsill, then potted, just as easily as wild mints. In outdoor gardens, store-bought mint likes dappled sun and shade, most wild mints prefer full sun.

Native cookery made much use of mints, especially where (as here) salt was a rare or nonexistent seasoning, and variety in foods was by herbal or vegetable additions. Fish were stuffed with, and wrapped in, mints. Mints were tossed (along with dried fruits and berries) into soups and stews. Since the flavor oil is rather volatile, little remains of the minty taste when these are boiled, they are a kind of cooked green veggie then. More herbal flavor is held in in a stuffed, wrapped baked fish. Of course lots of fresh mint leaves, chopped with some whole for garnish, improves every fruit salad and most green salads.

Teas can be made by crushing fresh mint, then pouring on boiling water to steep, but are better if the leaves are dried until crumbly -- then use about a heaping teaspoonful per cup. Mixing dried mint -- a quarter to half teaspoon -- with other dried herbs and flowers improves the flavor of most teas.

Most health food co-ops sell quite a variety of dried mints -- for $20 - $30 a pound. This is indicative of possible small business opportunity for reservation youth.

Mint, and certain other cooking herbs such as basil and cooking sage are called carminatives in old herbals. This means they help to prevent the formation of gas in the gut (that's a traditional joke about beans), a great contributor to gracious living in small, insulated, air-tight winter wigwams, as well as modern elevators. "An excellent remedy for flatulence and colicky pains in the abdomen" as a modern herbalist says. Anti-fart medicine, no one ever talks about it!

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CREDITS: All 3 mints were scanned from a paprback recent release of Culpepper's Color Herbal, first published in 1649, edited with "modern" alleged medical uses added (by David Potterton) below Culpepper's amusing, often irascible, remarks on each plant, and illustrated with color drawings/paintings. Reissued many times over 3 centuries, the latest is edition by Foulsham (London, 1983) and this paperback ($17.95, U.S. ) by Sterling Publishing of Toronto ($24.95 Can.). A beautiful and interesting book, though the herbs are English (a few found on both continents).

Culpepper is a fascinating character. A rich clergyman's son, he studied medicine (such as it was in the early 17th century) but instead of making his fortune doctoring the rich, as most did, tried to serve the poor who flocked into miserable London slums under the Land Enclosures (takings) that were going on, evicting country people from their farm villages and lands. Most were used to self-doctoring with country herbs, and were preyed upon in the city by charlatan herbalists. Culpepper's Colour Herbal uses everyday (not latinate, scientific or esoteric) plant names, and especially clear, colored pictures, so the country people could find the herbs themselves in parks or occasional country excursions, and be aware of their curative properties (as Culpepper's studies -- he's big on astrology in relation to plants, too -- best outlined those then).

This book has nothing to do with Native American plants or methods but it's still a beautiful school library book, a great gift (for the right person) and a great read.

Copyright 1995, Paula Giese

Last Updated: Thursday, December 28, 1995 - 1:47:32 PM