Sandy’s Garden ... Mint

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

I know of a house rabbit.

I am given to understand that some species of rabbit make excellent house pets, being relatively easy to care for and clean in their habits, preferring to use a tray of cat litter rather than foul their domestic environment … which likes peppermint sweets. This particular rabbit has a fondness for all manner of strong-tasting food, which may explain its liking for mint – and, for all I know, all pet rabbits may like food with a real taste given the opportunity. Another thing which I don’t know is whether wild rabbits have a similar penchant for strong-tasting foods in general and for mint in particular, for it seems that mint … the plant … has been around in much of Europe and most of Scotland since the beginning of recorded time; and by that reckoning wild rabbits have had access to the plant’s flavour-rich leaves for just as long.

Mint … Mentha to true botanists … takes its name from a minor figure in Greek mythology – Mentha – who was discovered in the act of having a passionate affair with Hades, the king of the dead, by Persephone, Hades’ wife. Possibly thinking she would be better off taking her revenge on the girl rather than on her husband, Persephone trampled on Mentha until she literally went to pieces; and from the remains of her shattered body, so the legend goes, the scented herb which bears her name sprang up. What is known for certain is that, during the Mycenaean civilisation, which reached its zenith between 1500 BCE and 1200 BCE, Mentha pulegium … its Latin name; we call it pennyroyal …was used to deter fleas; and historians think that Mentha aquatica … water mint … was used to flavour foods and to treat diarrhoea, colds and influenza by Scots during the Bronze Age between 2000 BCE and 700 BCE. It is also possible that the earlier Stone Age Scots made use of water mint in their diet. So mint has been around for a very long time, initially growing wild but brought under cultivation several millennia ago as the manifest advantages of having foods growing near one’s home in preference to having to search for everything became clear.

Our distant ancestors would have used plants with very similar characteristics to the varieties of mint we use today, strongly-scented, flavourful and willing to grow in almost any climatic conditions. The most widely-used species of the present time is Mentha spicata … spearmint … the botanical and common names coming from the spear-shaped spikes of mauve flowers which rise above the foliage in the late summer months. To be honest, these flowers are not particularly attractive and are not generally used; and many gardeners simply cut these spikes off, for the leaves … the parts of the plant which we actually want …are not unattractive and mint makes a rather pretty foliage plant. The flavour of Mentha spicata is, of course, very familiar to all who enjoy, or have enjoyed, chewing gum; and our liking for the flavour of Mentha spicata explains why the American company Wrigley’s launched ‘Spearmint’ … the classic Wrigley’s chewing gum, according to that company … in 1893, introduced it into the UK in 1911. Mentha spicata is also the species traditionally used to make mint sauce and is still the most widely-used mint for this most enjoyable accompaniment to roast lamb.

The best-selling brand of chewing gum in the UK today is, I learn, ‘Wrigley’s Extra Peppermint’. It is based on Mentha piperita … peppermint, a hybrid cross between watermint and spearmint … which is also the species used in mint tea. So watermint … which has been used in Scotland for at least 4 000 years … and spearmint … the most popular mint taste worldwide … are still very much to fore, although Mentha pulegium has fallen out of favour.