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Mentha spicata (Lamiaceae)

Plant of the month (©Pierre Laszlo, all rights reserved)
Mentha spicata (Lamiaceae)

The species in the genus Mentha are not clearly distinct. Estimates of their number vary from 13 to 18. This herbaceous, rhizomatous, perennial plant grows 30–100 cm tall. The leaves are 5–9 cm long and 1.5–3 cm broad, with a serrated margin. The stem is square-shaped, a trademark of the lamiaceae family. Spearmint, the common name for one of the species, produces flowers in slender spikes, each flower pink or white, 2.5–3 mm long, and broad.

Menthol is the best known molecule produced by mint. It belongs to the chemical family of alcohols. This molecule is active on humans, through interaction with the trigeminal nerve system. In mammalian sensory fibers, there exists a class of receptors known as transient receptor potential (TRP) channels. These are sensitive not only to activation by molecules such as menthol, but also to temperature. Accordingly, when menthol binds itself to the TRPM8 channel, it triggers a perception of cold.

Everyone has experienced it. However, the interesting feature spearmint derives from this physiological fact, is how it probes the specificity of cultures. A chameleon among plants, it adapts readily to the individual tastes in various countries. By culture, is meant here a set of acquired characteristics or tastes.

Japan: the Japanese mint, Perilla frutescens, is known as shiso. A whole leaf of green shiso is often used as a receptacle for wasabi mustard as a condiment to accompany sashimi.

Morocco — as well as many other Arabic countries: making tea is the prerogative of the man in the family. The green tea is made with leaves of both tea and mint, together with generous helpings of sugar. It is served to a guest, it is synonymous of hospitality. Hence, it ought not to be turned down, which would be insulting.

France: mint leaves are macerated in alcohol. One of the best-known commercial preparations is alcool de menthe Ricqlès. Very strong, it is used predominantly as a mere drop on a lump of sugar, when someone feels nauseous, or in a near-fainting state.

The Vichy State seized the assets of the manufacturing company, whose founder, Samuel Heymann de Ricqlès (?-1853) was a Jewish botanist and inventor, who migrated to France from the Netherlands.

There is also crème de menthe, used to impart a mint flavor to various drinks.

England: the traditional weekly family fancy dish is a leg of lamb, accompanied with a mint sauce, made from chopped mint leaves, canned beef broth, shallots, vinegar and sugar.

The United States: mint is the generic name for mint-flavored candy. Often, restaurants provide their patrons, upon departure, with a mint to provide a cooling sensation in the mouth. Americans, one should recall, are used to ice-cold drinks and have a related need for eliciting trigeminal nerve feelings (carbonated drinks, spices).

As for the mint julep, a richly delicious drink made from mint leaves crushed with sugar syrup and ice, generously washed with bourbon, it is as characteristic of the American South as mint tea is of North Africa. Its name might point to an origin with French or Acadian settlers in Louisiana.