What is Spearmint?

wiseGEEK Writer

Spearmint is a mint plant also known by its scientific name Mentha spicata. It gets its unusual name of spear from the pointy tips of the plant that could, in some imaginations, resemble the tip of a spear. This form of mint has certainly picked up other names through the years including Sage of Bethlehem, Menthe de Notre Dame, and lamb mint.

Spearmint is said to have a refreshing effect when used as aromatherapy.
Spearmint is said to have a refreshing effect when used as aromatherapy.

The first two names certainly represent the vast area in which spearmint is grown, and the plant is thought native to Europe and Asia. It’s also propagated widely in the US, where it may have brought intentionally or by accident to the shores of the New World by the pilgrims. While some people grow spearmint on purpose, others consider it a nuisance plant that spreads quickly and can take over other plants easily. It is a perennial, so in many soil environments it will come back each year, which may either delight or annoy gardeners.

Spearmint can be used to flavor summery cocktails.
Spearmint can be used to flavor summery cocktails.

In size, spearmint generally is about 12 inches tall (30.48 cm), but untended plants have reached 40 inches (101.6 cm) in height. Each stem of the plant is covered with leaves measuring about two inches (5.08 cm) long, with the noted narrowing of the tip of each leaf. In mid summer in the Western Hemisphere, the mint has tiny flowers, and it’s usually thought best to pick the mint, especially if used for food, before it flowers.

There are many culinary uses of spearmint. It can flavor certain drinks, and may be particularly popular in herbal or black teas. The plant can be cooked into mint jelly as a garnish for things like lamb, hence the name lamb mint. It’s also a preferred flavoring in things like toothpaste or in gum. In taste, some find this mint more intense than other mint flavors; in particular it’s much sharper than mints like peppermint, which may be ideal for certain foods or flavors and overwhelming for others.

A vast number of ways exist in which the plant has been used as an herbal remedy. Most of these remedies are largely untested, but on the other hand, spearmint is thought to be a mild herb that very few people need to avoid. In ancient medical lore and in present herbal catalogs, spearmint is usually thought of most as an herb that can calm down upset stomachs. It’s supposed to be especially efficacious in helping resolve gassy conditions. Old medicinal recommendations for the mint suggest placing it in a glass of milk to help promote digestion.

One interesting current suggestion regarding use of spearmint is that it may retard hair growth on the face of women. Though this use hasn’t been proven, it might be worth a try, since the mint is cheap and clearly less painful than tweezing or waxing. The mint might also be used as an essential oil or in aromatherapy where its smell is thought refreshing and mentally cleansing.

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