The Mint Family Lamiaceae

The 3,000 members of the Mint Family are relatively easy to distinguish since they have a unique combination of angular stems that are square in cross section, opposite leaves, and bilaterally symmetrical (irregular) flowers (Fig. 24.16). Most also produce aromatic oils in the leaves and stems. The superior ovary is four-parted, with each of the four divisions developing into a nutlet. Included in the family are such well-known plants as rosemary, thyme, sage (not to be confused with sagebrush of the Sunflower Family), oregano, marjoram, basil, lavender, catnip, peppermint, and spearmint.

Mint oils can be distilled at home with ordinary canning equipment. Whole plants (or at least the leaves) are loosely packed to a depth of about 10 centimeters (4 inches) or more in the bottom of a large canning pot. Then a wire rack or other support is also put in the pot, and a bowl is placed in the middle on the rack. Enough water is added to cover the

Flowering Plants and Civilization 475

Flowering Mint Plant
Figure 24.10 Flowers of lamb's ear mint.

canning pot bowl rack leaf material

Figure 24.17 A simple apparatus for distilling mint oil at home. See text.

inverted lid canning pot bowl rack leaf material

Figure 24.17 A simple apparatus for distilling mint oil at home. See text.

vegetation, the pot is placed on a range, and the lid is inverted over it. The water is brought to a boil, and as it does so, ice is placed on the inverted lid. The oils vaporize and condense when they contact the cold lid, dripping then from the low point into the bowl (Fig. 24.17). Of course, some moisture also condenses, but the oil, being lighter, floats on top. Peppermint oil is easy to collect this way and will keep for a year or two in a refrigerator.

Mint oils have been used medicinally and as an antiseptic in different parts of the world. Mohegan Indians used catnip tea for colds, and dairy farmers in parts of the midwestern

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United States used local mint oils to wash their milking equipment before antibiotics became popular for this purpose. As a result, mastitis, a common disease of dairy cattle, was seldom encountered in their herds. Horehound, a common mint weed of Europe, has become naturalized on other continents and is cultivated in France. A leaf extract is still used in horehound candy and cough medicines. In England, it is a basic ingredient of horehound beer. Vinegar weed, also known as blue curls, is a common fall-flowering plant of western North America. Native Americans of the area used it in cold remedies, for the relief of toothaches, and in a bath for the treatment of smallpox. It was also used to stupefy fish.

Menthol, the most abundant ingredient of peppermint oil (Fig. 24.18), is widely used today in toothpaste, candies, chewing gum, liqueurs, and cigarettes. Most American mint is grown commercially in the Columbia River basin of Oregon and Washington. Geese are sometimes used in the mint fields to control both insects and weeds, since they do not interfere with the growth of the mint plants themselves.

Lamia Figure
Figure 24.18 A peppermint plant in flower. Oil from the leaves is a source of menthol.
Menthol Plantsa
Figure 24.1Q A flowering head of chia.

Ornamental mints include salvias and the popular variegated-leaf Coleus plants, neither of which has typical mint oils in the foliage. Chia (Fig. 24.19), another relatively odorless mint, is confined to the drier areas of western North America. Native Americans parched chia seeds and used them in gruel. The seeds, which become mucilaginous when wet, were also ground into a paste that was placed in the eye to aid in the removal of dirt particles. The paste was also used as a poultice for gunshot wounds, and Spanish Californians made a refreshing drink from ground chia seeds, lemon juice, and sugar. Chia seeds reportedly contain an unidentified substance that has effects similar to those of caffeine. Before the turn of the century, one physician reported that a tablespoon of chia seeds was sufficient to sustain a man on a 24-hour endurance hike. Since that time, backpackers have experimented with the seeds, and results tend to support the earlier claim. A thorough scientific investigation of the matter is needed. Chia seeds are sold commercially for making into a paste that is spread on clay models and then watered. The seeds sprout and resemble green hair.

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