One day, spearmint was cleaning up around the garden, and she came across watermint growing in the shallows of the lily pond. In spite of their different worlds, they recognized one another as kindred spirits... and before long, they carried out a somewhat awkward, but overall endearing romance. Their love story didn't become an Academy Award-winning movie, but it did produce a wonderful love child, peppermint.
Hybridization isn't uncommon in nature, and where both spearmint (Mentha spicata) and watermint (Mentha aquatica) are naturalized, you'll often find peppermint, as well: in ditches, low-lying sections of fields and pastures, or near drainage culverts. Seriously, spearmint and watermint aren't precious about where they get it on, and though many think "artificial" when they hear the word hybridization, one doesn't need a shady government-run lab in Baltimore to get watermint and spearmint to hook up. It freely hybridizes in nature through cross-pollination.
While some sources claim that peppermint didn't appear on the herbalist's radar until it was cultivated in 18th century England, ancient texts have mentioned the hybrid as far back as 1500 years ago.
It's possible that even its origins are hybridized; British horticulturists likely learned about the cause and effect of breeding watermint and spearmint, where older cultures simply thought of it as a completely separate type of mint. They might have interchanged "spearmint," "peppermint," or just plain "mint" when referring to any one of the herbs.
Until 1696, peppermint was not classified as its own subspecies, but most historians believe it is reasonable to assume that the mint mentioned in many historical texts is peppermint.
Like most mints, peppermint is native to southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Pliny the Elder (circa 23-79 CE) wrote about peppermint as a food flavoring, and according to sources compiled by the American Botanical Council, Mentha x Piperita was likely cultivated by Egyptians, and first appeared as a medicinal herb in 13th-century Icelandic documents. However, according to the ABC, Europeans didn't use peppermint as a medicinal herb until the mid-18th century.
Fun fact: Oregon grows more than 35% of the peppermint cultivated in the United States, and has dominated the industry for the past few decades. According to the most recent data available from Oregon State University (GO BEAVS!), "over 1000 acres of peppermint were planted and harvested in Central Oregon during 2012, yielding 80 pounds an acre and grossing $1,849,200."
Most of the peppermint grown there is steam-distilled to create essential oil or is used in various flavoring and cosmetic products. It's also supplied to the growing herbal medicine industry.
Peppermint as a Medicinal Herb
Alexander the Great was said to have forbidden his armies from consuming peppermint (commonly used to flavor wine) because it made them overly horny, and caused them to lose their will to fight. Middle Eastern Arab used it as their own version of the Little Blue Pill.
Perhaps it improves virility, perhaps not. But there's little doubt that peppermint works wonders as a breath freshener, and clean minty-fresh breath does up the odds of the user getting lucky, especially in an age when dental hygienists weren't available.
Here are a few other ways peppermint, in tea form, when encapsulated, or when used topically, has earned its place in traditional and contemporary herbal medicine:
- Fart prevention (we need to up our herbal keyword game, and we've got "flatulence" covered)
- Soothes upset stomachs
- Relieves tension headaches
- Reduces cold symptoms, coughs, and congestion
- Memory enhancement and stress relief
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Reduction of tuberculosis and asthma symptoms related to lung inflammation
- Muscle pain relief
Menthol, a primary component in peppermint, is commonly used in vapor rubs. When used as a tobacco blend, peppermint reduces the "harshness" of inhaled cigarette smoke. When peppermint oil is used as a scalp treatment, it's reputed to repel lice and prevent dandruff, and as a toothpaste ingredient, it's believed to reduce the filmy coating of bacteria left behind by plaque-creating critters.
There aren't many studies specific to peppermint, other than a few related to IBS treatments. However, when used in moderation, peppermint and its essential oils are considered safe by medical practitioners.
We at Seed Needs always recommend that you seek the counsel of your physician before using any herbs or essential oils, either internally or topically, especially if you're pregnant or nursing. Pets and small children are more sensitive to herbal products, so please take care.
Pest Control and Peppermint
One of our customers swears by peppermint oil as a rodent, moth and spider repellent. She puts the oil on cotton balls and scatters them around her RV when "mothballing" it for storage, and uses this technique in her sweater drawers, storage areas, and crawlspace.
Gardeners have made peppermint infusions to spray on plants to rid them of pests or planted peppermint among vegetables in raised bed gardens (note: peppermint can be invasive). Infusions or solutions made from peppermint oil can be sprayed indoors or outside to repel ants, but note that strong odors are irritants to dogs, cats, and especially birds.
Mowed or cut peppermint, when used as a mulch, is a good compromise when you want to repel garden pests.
Peppermint in the Garden
USDA Hardiness Zones: Peppermint is a perennial in zones 5 to 11, but might be treated as an annual down to Zone 3. Established plants will tolerate some frost during the growing period.
Foliage: Peppermint has hairless, serrated, spear-shaped dark green leaves that are somewhat glossy as compared to most other mints. Some peppermint will have a reddish tinge around the edges, a trait likely passed down from watermint.
Flowers: Peppermint blooms late summer, with lavender, purple and sometimes burgundy flowers on long terminal spikes.
Growing Habit: Peppermint has an upright growing habit (1 to 2 feet tall), and a prolific runner and root system that suggests peppermint is best grown as a container plant.
You can use peppermint as a spreading ground cover, and even mow it, but if you want to keep it in check, you'll need to dig out its root system.
Soil Preferences: Growing peppermint requires damp or even wet soil to thrive. Plant it in drip-irrigated areas, along the edges of ponds, or in low-lying, boggy areas in your garden. Short dry periods won't kill peppermint but might reduce its growth and flower production.
Peppermint prefers a soil pH between 6.5 and 7.0, but it can handle slightly more acidic conditions. Peat moss makes a good soil additive to help retain moisture.
Sunlight: Peppermint does best in partial shade, but will tolerate sun. Peppermint makes a fantastic indoor plant if placed on a windowsill.
Companion Plantings: Peppermint is thought to improve the flavor of broccoli, kohlrabi, kale, and cabbage, but it p***** off parsley and chamomile. Peppermint repels ants and aphids, as well as pests known to attack cabbages and other leafy crops. (See above). In addition to repelling pests, it attracts beneficial insects such as predatory wasps, hoverflies, and earthworms.
Tips for Growing Peppermint
When to Plant Peppermint Seeds: Start seeds indoors anytime, or direct-sow after all chance of spring frost has passed. Some gardeners plant peppermint seeds a few weeks before the first fall frost for a jump on the following growing season.
Soil Preparation: Amend soil with aged, screened compost, and moisten it prior to seeding.
Seed Depth and Spacing: Most mints require sunlight to germinate, and growing peppermint from seed is no exception. Lightly press Mentha x Piperita seeds on the surface of your soil or planting mix. For direct seeding or transplantation, space peppermint 18 to 24 inches apart.
Germination: Seedlings emerge in 7 to 20 days; if germinating indoors, use a heat mat beneath your seedling trays.
Transplanting: Transplant outdoors after all risk of spring frost has passed and the seedlings have grown two sets of true leaves, or keep peppermint indoors as part of your herbal window garden.
Pests and Diseases: Peppermint's biological enemies include Verticillium wilt, Verticillium dahliae, and powdery mildew, but it doesn't have any notable insect or invertebrate pests.
Maintenance and Harvesting: Keep an eye on this sneaky plant, using a hand trowel to sever roots and create an underground boundary for ground-planted peppermint. Trim surface runners as necessary.
Peppermint leaves are most potent before the plant focuses its energy on flower production, and the more you trim it back (down to an inch above ground level) the more greenery you get. Dry stems and flowers by hanging inverted in a warm, dry area, or freeze leaves in ice cubes for future use.
Peppermint makes a great garnish for desserts, adult beverages, lemonade, and ice tea. Chop a few leaves to add to fruit salads. Do you have an ice cream maker? Crushed leaves or home-made extract makes for a great sorbet or bonafide chocolate mint delight.
Peppermint Extract: Most recipes that require peppermint flavoring ask for peppermint extract, rather than crushed leaves. This recipe, from My Frugal Home, will set you on the right track.
Peppermint and Vanilla Hard Candy: A different take on peppermint candy than your typical restaurant mint or candy cane, this recipe from Taste of Home creates a clear, glassy treat that would make Walter White proud.
Peppermint Patties: Allrecipes comes through for us once again, and you can't go blathering on about peppermint recipes without including this favorite in your repertoire.
Fresh Peppermint Tea: An easy-peasy recipe from Yum Universe that uses fresh peppermint leaves.
Send Samples to Seed Needs for Quality Control
We promise to provide you with the freshest, highest-quality seeds if you promise to send us a batch of peppermint candy so we can quality test it for free.Okay, fine, our product and customer care standards aren't contingent upon your generosity with goodies, but just in case, contact us for our shipping address. Feel free to drop us a line if you have any questions about our non-GMO, responsibly-sourced vegetable, ornamental, and herb seeds, or if you want more information about our family business and commitment to outreach. We appreciate your support, and look forward to helping you and your garden thrive!