Mint descends from the Latin word mentha, which is rooted in the Greek word minthe, personified in Greek mythology as Minthe, a nymph who was transformed into a mint plant. The word itself probably derives from a now extinct pre-Greek language (see Pre-Greek substrate).
The taxonomic family Lamiaceae is known as the mint family. It includes many other aromatic herbs, including most of the more common cooking herbs, such as basil, rosemary, sage, oregano, and catnip.
Mint leaves, without a qualifier like ‘peppermint’ or ‘apple mint’, generally refers to spearmint leaves. In common usage, other plants with fragrant leaves may be called “mint”, although they are not in the mint family.
Mentha (also known as mint, from Greek míntha, Linear B mi-ta) is a genus of plants in the family Lamiaceae (mint family). It is estimated that 13 to 18 species exist, and the exact distinction between species is still unclear. Hybridization between some of the species occurs naturally. Many other hybrids, as well as numerous cultivars, are known.
Mints are aromatic, almost exclusively perennial, rarely annual herbs. They have wide-spreading underground and over ground stolon’s and erect, square, branched stems. The leaves are arranged in opposite pairs, from oblong to lanceolate, often downy, and with a serrated margin. Leaf colors range from dark green and gray-green to purple, blue, and sometimes pale yellow. The flowers are white to purple and produced in false whorls called verticillasters. The corolla is two-lipped with four subequal lobes, the upper lobe usually the largest. The fruit is a nutlet, containing one to four seeds.
While the species that make up the Mentha genus are widely distributed and can be found in many environments, most grow best in wet environments and moist soils. Mints will grow 10–120 cm tall and can spread over an indeterminate area. Due to their tendency to spread unchecked, some mints are considered invasive.
The leaf, fresh or dried, is the culinary source of mint. Fresh mint is usually preferred over dried mint when storage of the mint is not a problem. The leaves have a warm, fresh, aromatic, sweet flavor with a cool aftertaste, and are used in teas, beverages, jellies, syrups, candies, and ice creams. In Middle Eastern cuisine, mint is used on lamb dishes, while in British cuisine and American cuisine, mint sauce and mint jelly are used, respectively.
Mint is a necessary ingredient in Touareg tea, a popular tea in northern African and Arab countries. Alcoholic drinks sometimes feature mint for flavor or garnish, such as the mint julep and the mojito. Crème de menthe is a mint-flavored liqueur used in drinks such as the grasshopper.
Mint essential oil and menthol are extensively used as flavorings in breath fresheners, drinks, antiseptic mouth rinses, toothpaste, chewing gum, desserts, and candies, such as mint (candy) and mint chocolate. The substances that give the mints their characteristic aromas and flavors are menthol (the main aroma of peppermint and Japanese peppermint) and pulegone (in pennyroyal and Corsican mint). The compound primarily responsible for the aroma and flavor of spearmint is L-carvone.
Mint was originally used as a medicinal herb to treat stomach ache and chest pains. There are several uses in traditional medicine and preliminary research for possible use in treating irritable bowel syndrome. Menthol from mint essential oil (40–90%) is an ingredient of many cosmetics and some perfumes. Menthol and mint essential oil are also used in aromatherapy which may have clinical use to alleviate post-surgery nausea.
Although it is used in many consumer products, mint may cause allergic reactions in some people, inducing symptoms such as abdominal cramps, diarrhea, headaches, heartburn, tingling or numbing around the mouth, anaphylaxis or contact dermatitis. Mint oil is also used as an environmentally friendly insecticide for its ability to kill some common pests such as wasps, hornets, ants, and cockroaches.
Known in Greek mythology as the herb of hospitality, one of mint’s first known uses in Europe was as a room deodorizer. The herb was strewn across floors to cover the smell of the hard-packed soil. Stepping on the mint helped to spread its scent through the room. Today, it is more commonly used for aromatherapy through the use of essential oils.