Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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The Mint Family
Nature Bulletin No. 432-A   November 6, 1971
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

THE MINT FAMILY
The Mint Family, in addition to the true mints -- such as Spearmint used in flavoring chewing gum and the mint sauce traditionally served with roast lamb -- contains over 3000 species. Almost all of them are plants with square stems and opposite pairs or whorls of leaves at intervals along the stems. Most of them have a distinctive fragrant or pungent odor, due to volatile oils contained in glands or sacs in the leaves and other parts. Through the ages, the mints have been variously used by man for medicinal purposes and flavorings.

Lavender, rosemary and patchouli are perfumes obtained from members of this family. The lemon-scented leaves of Bergamot, one of the true mints, furnish a fragrant oil also used in perfumes. A surprising number of the savories or kitchen herbs used in cooking are plants belonging to this aromatic tribe: sage, thyme, germander, marjoram, the basils, summer savory and hyssop.

Peppermint is extensively grown on muck soils in Indiana and southern Michigan which furnish over three-quarters of the oil of peppermint or menthol produced in the United States. When the first of the little flowers appear, the crop is mowed, cured like hay, and then distilled with steam to obtain the oil.

Many members of the mint family, introduced in early times from Europe or from Asia, have escaped and become weeds or wildflowers. One of these is the familiar Catnip or Catmint which has such a fascination for all members of the cat family. A cat will rub its face against the leaves of a catnip plant, or roll and play with a ball of it, loudly purring all the while; and a tiger or a leopard in a zoo will do the same. Children used to drink catnip tea in spring as a "blood purifier" and a strong solution of it, used as a wash, was supposed to help cure a rash of ivy poisoning.

Gill-over-the-ground or Creeping Charlie, a close relative of catnip, is a low sprawling weed that often forms extensive mats in lawns, pastures and waste places, Heal-all, originally from Europe and used by pioneers to cure aching joints or other ailments, has become very common in the fields and along roadsides. Seldom more than a foot high, it may be identified by its square stems and cylindrical heads of small blue flowers intermingled with green bracts.

Horehound, also introduced from Europe, now grows wild in old fields and pastures on dry upland soils. Usually found in clumps with dense woolly-white foliage, this plant has such a bitter taste that sheep and other livestock will not eat it but the leaves and flower stalks are used in the preparation of cough medicines and for flavoring candies. Years ago, sticks of dark strong-tasting horehound candy were a staple item in every country store.

One of the most common of our native mints is Pennyroyal, a small erect plant found in dry pastures and open woodlands. We used to rub handfuls of its little leaves on our necks and faces to keep mosquitoes away, and the plant is grown to obtain an oil sold for this purpose. Largest and showiest of the native mints are the Oswego Tea or Bee Balm with scarlet flower heads, and the Wild Bergamot or Horsemint, with lavender flowers, which is so common along our roadsides in the Chicago region during summer.

Wrigley made a mint of money from mint.


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