JOANNE HOWDLE: Diversity of ways to use refreshing mint botanical
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Water mint (Mentha aquatica) is a vigorous, herbaceous perennial flowering plant in the mint family Lamiaceae.
It grows in moist places and is native to Europe, north-west Africa, and south-west Asia. As the name suggests, water mint grows in the shallow margins and channels of canals, ditches, marshes, pools, rivers, streams, and wet meadows. It grows on mildly acidic to calcareous mineral or peaty soils. and can grow up to 90 centimetres in height as a straight upright plant. Like all members of the mint family, it has green to purple coloured stems which are square in cross section. The finely toothed leaves grow in opposing pairs up the stems. The flowerheads which appear from summer to autumn are spherical and emerge from the leaf nodes. It also has a terminal flowerhead containing small pink-lilac-coloured flowers, which are nectar/pollen rich. In fact, water mint is a fantastic plant for wildlife, as the flowerheads are accessible to beneficial insects and other pollinators, including birds, bees, butterflies, moths, and hoverflies. The species is hermaphrodite and all parts of the botanical have a distinctly minty aroma.
The origin of the scientific name Mentha comes from Ancient Greece. In Greek mythology, Minthe was a naiad nymph – a female spirit, who presided over brooks, fountains, springs, streams, wells and other bodies of fresh water. Minthe was associated with the river Cocytus – the “River of Lamentation/Wailing” located in the Greek underworld. Minthe became the mistress of Hades, Greek god of the dead and king of the Underworld and, in a fit of jealous rage, she was transformed into a water mint plant by either Hades’ wife Persephone or his mother-in-law Demeter. The species name Aquatica, is of Latin origin and means “belonging to the water”.
In the Middle Ages, rich people scattered the leaves of water mint on the floors of their banqueting halls, so when their guests stood upon them, they released an aromatic odour into the room. The aroma of the botanical also repels mice and rats and in the past farmers scattered water mint leaves on granary floors to prevent vermin from eating their grain.
In herbal medicine a tea made from the leaves of water mint is used to treat digestive disorders including stomach-ache and abdominal cramps, fevers, headaches and various minor ailments. The leaves of the botanical are also used as a mouthwash and gargle for treating bad breath, sore throats, and mouth ulcers. The essential oil in the leaves of water mint is antiseptic and is used topically in creams and massage oils to treat muscular aches and pains associated with injury as it brings cooling relief and may increase pain threshold. However, the botanical is toxic in large doses and excessive consumption of water mint is believed to cause miscarriage.
In cooking, the raw or cooked leaves of water mint can be used the same as any other mint, to add a strong distinctive peppermint-like flavour to jellies and syrups, as a flavouring in cooked foods and salads, or to make an excellent caffeine free strong tea. In gin manufacture water mint leaves add a refreshing aromatic leafiness and slight coolness of flavour to the spirit.
Joanne Howdle is interpretation and engagement manager at the multi-award-winning Dunnet Bay Distillers Ltd.