Like many American teenagers, I emerged from high school with a brace of bad habits and some strange notions about the world. To call me misguided would have understated the case. Addled by fast food and soda, it doesn't seem so long ago that every morning I woke up miserable and anxious about the day.
Changing my diet removed much of the stressful static that jangled my thoughts, and was easier than I might have guessed. Good riddance, I said, to the fatty, starchy junk foods and sugar-saturated sodas. But to this day, I can't quite give up my morning coffee, and saying adios to my mid-morning, late-afternoon, and after-dinner coffees remains a tenuous accomplishment. One of the ways I mollify the caffeine demon is to brew a pot of tea from homegrown mint. Mint itself contains no caffeine, but the ritual of brewing and flavorful sipping always provides brief surcease from the craving.
Fortunately, it is actually easier to grow mint than it is to brew it. Plants in the mint family, with ample sun and water, grow exuberantly, ecstatically. A clump planted in the border of your garden will rampage in all directions, eventually squeezing out more decorous plants. In fact, if left unchecked, mint will undoubtedly choke itself out, using up all the nutrients in the soil. It is wisest to plant mints in a container, which can be buried in the ground if you like.
Mint runners that have at least some green leaves showing above ground are ideal for propagation. In early spring at Dr. Weil's ranch, I dip in to the big pot of spearmint (Dr. Weil's favorite mint) and set the divisions in smaller pots full of fresh potting soil. After the new plants establish we give them away to friends. In the old stand of mint in the big pot, I put a little organic plant food and fresh soil to replenish lost nutrients. Because mint does not tend to breed true when grown from seed, division is the only way to propagate any particular cultivar.
Mint leaves are easily dried on a screen, but I find it even simpler to strip dried leaves from the stems, and then wrap twine around a fresh bundle to dry. I store a few bound bundles in a small paper bag, and remove the leaves as needed. Dried mint leaves can keep for a couple years if stored in a cool, dark place.
Though fresh mint leaves are preferred for making jellies and for garnishes (for example, on top of your mojito if you partake) you will need to steep twice as many fresh leaves as dried ones for mint tea. I steep a rounded teaspoon of fresh-picked leaves in a mug, but you can use more or less to flavor.
Menthol, the active ingredient in mint that gives it its characteristic flavor, is more concentrated in peppermint (Mentha piperata) than in spearmint (Menthe spicata), and is considered an aid in digestion and a stomach-calmer. The crisp, clean scent also has applications in aromatherapy. Spearmint tea, on the other hand, seems to have some unusual effects, including lowering male hormones in women, which may help control the growth of unwanted facial hair.
Mint tea is at once stimulating and calming. A coffee replacement it is not, but its distinct flavor leaves the palate satisfied and the mouth feeling clear and clean. Because it grows even when you're not looking, eventually you'll have enough mint in your summer garden to steep at least a few free hot pots through the winter.
And you'll feel like a grownup. Mint tea: the mature, responsible beverage.
By Jace Mortensen, Guest Commentator