By Maryann Readal
Most of us, gardeners or not, are familiar with mint. But how many of us know that there is a distinctive difference between spearmint and peppermint? The difference between these two mints may be important depending on how you want to use them.
Peppermint, Mentha × piperita, is The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month for July. Peppermint is really a hybrid of two mints, water mint (Mentha aquatica) and spearmint (Mentha spicata). . Being a hybrid, peppermint does not produce seeds. If you want to propagate it, you must either take cuttings or divide the plant. Like other mints, peppermint is a vigorous grower, so must be contained if you don’t want it growing everywhere in your garden. It favors growing in rich, moist soil. Peppermint has a narrow, coarse leaf and flowers that are pink-lavender. Spearmint, on the other hand, is softer to the touch and has a darker green leaf with pink, lavender, or white flowers.
But the major difference in these two mints is in the taste. Spearmint has a sweeter, milder taste due to its lower menthol content (0.5%). Peppermint has a much higher menthol content at 40%, and therefore has a much stronger flavor, almost a peppery minty flavor. Because of its high menthol content, peppermint is the mint preferred for medicinal applications. It is used in pain relief ointments because it produces a cooling sensation on sore muscles. It is a common ingredient in throat soothing teas and lozenges, and is often used to disguise the strong taste of some medicines. It has been found effective in the short-term treatment of irritable bowel syndrome and other digestive problems (https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/peppermint-oil). Peppermint oil can be rubbed on the temples to alleviate tension headaches (https://www.webmd.com/diet/ss/slideshow-health-benefits-peppermint). Spearmint, with its much milder flavor, is used to treat mild cases of nausea and even hiccups.
In cooking, it really makes a difference which mint is used. Because of peppermint’s strong flavor, it can overpower the flavors of savory dishes. However, it works well with candies, pastries and chocolate. It is a popular addition to holiday treats such as candy canes, peppermint bark, and peppermint patties. A touch of peppermint in your hot cocoa makes it special. Spearmint, on the other hand, does not overpower other herbs and spices and can be used with a much broader spectrum of foods. Use it in mint julep and in tabbouleh, or in a minty sauce for lamb.
Peppermint oil is becoming more important in the aromatherapy industry, and is thought to have a positive effect on memory. According to a study reported in the International Journal of Neuroscience, the aroma from peppermint oil enhances memory and increases alertness (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00207450601042094?journalCode=ines20&).
The United States is the major producer of peppermint oil in the world and accounts for half of the world’s trade, something that we don’t often hear when talking about the economics of herbs and spices (https://www.agrifutures.com.au/farm-diversity/peppermint-oil/). Most of the peppermint in the U.S. is grown in the Pacific Northwest. According to AgHires.com, an acre of mint produces about 70 pounds of oil. One pound of oil can flavor 1,500 tubes of toothpaste or 40,000 sticks of gum (https://aghires.com/u-s-produces-70-worlds-mint/). A drop of peppermint oil goes a long way.
I would be remiss if I did not include here the story about the origin of peppermint according to Greek mythology. It is said that Hades (also known to the Greeks as Pluto) fell in love with a beautiful wood nymph. Persephone, his wife, became jealous and turned the nymph into a lowly plant to be stepped on. Hades could not undo the damage done by Persephone’s spell, so he gave the plant a beautiful scent so that she would never be forgotten. He called her Minthe.
So there you have it─some interesting information about peppermint to help make you an enlightened user of mint —at least of spearmint and peppermint.
Please visit The Herb Society’s Herb of the Month webpage for more information about peppermint, a screensaver for your computer, and some minty recipes.
Medicinal Disclaimer: It is the policy of The Herb Society of America, Inc. not to advise or recommend herbs for medicinal or health use. This information is intended for educational purposes only and should not be considered as a recommendation or an endorsement of any particular medical or health treatment. Please consult a health care provider before pursuing any herbal treatments.
Maryann is the Secretary of The Herb Society of America. She is a Master Gardener and a member of the Texas Thyme Unit in Huntsville, TX. She gardens among the pines in the Piney Woods of East Texas.