Pennyroyal: The Potentially Deadly Mint

pennyroyal

Pennyroyal is a mint variety that is native to Europe, parts of Asia as well as to the Middle East. It was introduced to places in Africa along with Australia and New Zealand. Pennyroyal’s use dates back to the Ancient Greeks and the Romans after them. The herb was used for its medicinal value but it was an important culinary herb as well. The Greeks used pennyroyal primarily to flavor wines. Roman gourmet Apicius listed fresh and dried pennyroyal alongside other major culinary herbs such as oregano and lovage. In addition to using it to flavor wines, Apicius also used the herb in sauces including a sauce to be served with game.

Pliny the Elder was another historical figure who documented the herb’s benefits. He listed it as a flea repellant. According to some historians, the herb’s presence around the world can be accounted for by the Roman Empire to a large extent.

It was well known to these early civilizations for its use in improving menstrual flow and for causing abortions. Large doses of pennyroyal are needed to affect a fetus. Those large doses can cause serious kidney or liver damage and death both to the mother and to her unborn child.

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Apple Mint: The Fruity Mint

apple mint

Apple mint’s origin is solidly European, it comes from the southern and western parts of the continent but can be found growing wild in other parts as well. In Ancient Greece, apple mint was used for cleaning tables in banquet halls and as a bath herb. It has historically been used as a strewing herb, which means that it has been strewn in temples and other buildings. The idea is that the herb would release its fragrance when crushed underfoot by the building’s occupants. It served as both an air freshener and a pest repellent.

Apple mint is sometimes spelled applemint. Pineapple mint is a variant of apple mint; you can tell the difference between the two herbs by pineapple mint’s variegated leaves. Other names for apple mint include woolly mint because of the hairs on its leaves and monk’s herb because it was once grown mainly in monastery gardens. The reason stems from the fact that monasteries were also infirmaries. The monks believed that you could use the herb to treat the fatigue that followed epileptic seizures.

People in Spain and Latin America, refer to apple mint as hierbabuena. Note that sometimes other mints are referred to as hierbabuena, which means good herb.

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Peppermint: The Spicy Mint

peppermint

Peppermint is a hybrid of spearmint and watermint that occurs naturally. You can find it growing wild all over Europe and North America, though historians believe that its origins lie in the Mediterranean region.

Peppermint was used by the Ancient Egyptians and later on by the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Pliny the Elder wrote that both the Greeks and the Romans used peppermint to adorn both themselves and their feast tables. They also used it as a culinary herb, using it to flavor wines and sauces. The Greeks and the Romans valued peppermint for its soothing effects on the stomach.

Both Aristotle and Alexander the Great considered peppermint an aphrodisiac, the latter forbade its use by his soldiers. He felt that consuming the herb would rob them of their will to fight. The Arabs had a similar view of peppermint and served it in beverages meant to enhance the libido.

Icelandic pharmacopeias from the 13th century make mention of the herb.

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Watermint: The Medicinal Mint

watermint

Watermint is a member of the mint family, one that has been in use since the time of the Ancient Greeks. Some historians believe that watermint is the mint referred to in Greek myth of Menthe, the nymph who was turned into the mint plant by jealous Persephone. They also believe that it is watermint that is used by Philemon and Baucis to scrub tables as mentioned in the writings of Ovid. Both the Greeks and the Romans used members of the mint family as a part of the ritual for preparing dead bodies to be interred. It was used for its aroma, which helped to mask the smell of decay.

The use of watermint or pennyroyal to scent bath water was another practice common to both Ancient Greece and to Ancient Rome.

In the Middle Ages, watermint leaves were scattered on the floors of banquet halls as a kind of air freshener. As guests entered and moved around, the leaves would be trampled and release their fragrance.

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Ginger Mint: The Spicy Hybrid Mint

ginger mint

Ginger mint is a mint varietal that is grown in Europe and Asia. It goes by several names including Scotch mint and Vietnamese mint. Its Latin name is Mentha x gracilis. It is a hybrid between spearmint (Mentha spicata) and corn mint (Mentha arvensis). It does not grow in the wild.

The species to which ginger mint belongs has been used since the time of the Ancient Egyptians and is mentioned in the Bible. The Roman poet Ovid wrote about mint and it was a popular flavoring for sauces in Ancient Rome. The Romans would finish off their meals with a mint sprig to freshen breath and enhance digestion. Ancient Ayurvedic texts list mint as a stimulant for the appetite. In Europe, mint continued to be a beloved herb in the Medieval era with mint sauce being a favorite condiment that was said to enhance appetite. During this time, it was also used for treating illnesses of the stomach.

Spearmint has a much longer history than ginger mint and is thought to have arrived in the US from Europe with the first pilgrims. According to some accounts, Native Americans used mint as a treatment for toothaches, fevers and intestinal ailments.

Ginger mint is believed to be a relative newcomer to America having been brought to Wisconsin in the late 1960s. Today, Wisconsin is one of the main producers of mint in the US. It is one of the eight US states where the herb is cultivated on a commercial scale.

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Epazote: A Pungent Herb From Yucatan

epazote

Epazote is a Central American herb that has a history of use dating back thousands of years to the Aztecs and the Mayans. They used it both for its medicinal value and as a culinary herb. The main use of the herb by both these civilizations was medicinal.

Among the different names for this herb are payqu and skunkweed. The epazote name comes from two Aztec words that translate to skunk and another word that can mean excrement or sweat. The name comes from the fact that the herb is highly aromatic. The name of its species is Dysphania ambrosioides. The ambrosioides comes from ambrosia, the food of the mythical Greek gods. This name was likely given because of the smell.

Epazote would be transported from Mexico to Spain in the 16th century and would thrive there. From Spain, it would spread around the world. It has been found as far afield as Tibet and India. A variety of it called wormseed grows all over the US as a weed. Wormseed is viewed as an invasive plant. It should be noted that the wormseed variety is different from the culinary variety.

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Stevia: The Paraguayan Sweetener

Stevia

Stevia comes from a plant related to ragweed that grows in the Amambay Mountain range in Paraguay. It was known to the Guarani people of that region long before the European colonists arrived. The Guarani people recognized the herb’s powerful sweetening ability and used the leaves to mute the bitterness of mate, a steeped beverage similar to tea. It was also used to make medicinal compounds more palatable.

Conquering Spaniards documented the extensive use of stevia among the locals. The Spaniards themselves would eventually begin using the herb. Its use eventually spread to other South American countries.

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Fingerroot: The Medicinal Ginger

Fingerroot

Fingerroot is a rhizome in the ginger family that is shaped like a hand with the fingers extended, hence its name. It is native to the Yunnan Province in China and you can find it in Malaysia as well. Thai cooks refer to fingerroot as krachai; Malaysians call it temu kunci. In English, it is also known as Chinese ginger in addition to fingerroot. Parts of the plant have long been used by the Nicobarese tribesmen of the Nicobar and Andaman Archipelago. Fingerroot is one of the many herbs used by the islanders for their medicinal benefits. The tradition of using plants as medicine in this part of the world goes back to the time before recorded history.

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