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Though our favorite mints are foreigners, Michigan does boast native mints. Our sandy meadows are bright with the whorled flowers of horsemint (Monarda punctata) and wild bergamot (Monarda fistulosa). These were named in 1594 after Nicolas Monardes, a Spanish doctor who was awed by the bounty of the Americas and wrote an extensive catalog of the medicinal plants of the New World. The leaves of these fetching wildflowers aren’t as sweet as peppermint or spearmint, but may have played a life-saving role in native culture.
During the long Northern winters, the Ojibwe and Odawa of our region drank teas instead of water, which supplied them with not only flavorful and medicinal beverages, but also with a source for vitamins over the long winter. For the months when their diet consisted of dried beans, squash, and game, tea helped prevent scurvy. Native women combined mint with other herbs and roots for medicinal teas, and settlers even called some wild mint “squaw” mint (likely a misappropriation of the word “ikwe,” which means “woman”). Native Americans also used mint topically to treat burns, or in a very strong tea to get rid of worm parasites contracted from eating bad meat.
You can typically identify mint by its odd, square stem, but from there it runs the gamut of appearance and flavors. (Again, a caution for the enthusiastic novice: never eat anything you can’t POSITIVELY identify.) Botanists have identified more than 600 species of mint; credit the wily plant’s ability to cross-pollinate. You can now find mint plants with distinctive flavors like chocolate, pineapple, wintergreen, lemon and apple.
If you aren’t into foraging, this hardy herb is so easy to grow that even the horticulturally clueless can plant a sprig and watch it flourish into a patch in no time. But beware: “Mint can completely ruin a garden,” warns Gail Ingraham of Bellwether Herbs and Flowers in Suttons Bay. “It just spreads and takes over and is very hard to contain.” She recommends planting in a container, or a garden area with some kind of barrier surrounding the plants (like sunken railroad ties). Certain kinds of mint, like silver mint, add an element of beauty and design to window box gardens. Mints also do well indoors and can tolerate growing in low light. Simply take a cutting, place it in a glass of water and let it root. You can then transplant it to container or garden. Trim or pick the tops of plants to keep the patch looking full.
The more you pick mint, the more it grows, which means it’s time to get creative and use the stuff. Fresh mint makes dreamy tea, hot or iced. Try it tossed with sliced tomatoes drizzled in balsamic vinegar. Chewing fresh leaves is an instant breath freshener (handy!), and a sprig or two makes great garnish in hot chocolate or on a plate of summer fruit. Or you can dry it to enliven teas, potpourri or sachets (see recipes).
So next time you catch the scent in the breeze, breathe deep, give into that ancient invigoration and grab a bunch to welcome spring to the North Country.
Or try another delicious treat from the forest (that you may not have expected)