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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Update: June 2012