Spearmint (Mentha spicata L.)
Spearmint in the mint family (Lamiaceae) has bright green, wrinkled, lance-shaped leaves, spreads by underground stems, and grows to 2 feet in height.1 Small pinkish-lilac flowers appear in summer. It is native to the Mediterranean region but has naturalized in virtually every country to which it has been introduced.1
History and Traditional Use
Spearmint is a common garden mint with a distinct flavor and a reputation for increasing the appetite.1 In the ancient Middle East, it was one of the plants that could be used to pay taxes. It was believed that spearmint would prevent the curdling of milk and help with watering eyes and sores. It was applied with salt to relieve bites from mad dogs, wasps, and bee stings. Spearmint was inhaled to relieve tension in the head and revive memory. As a gargle, it was said to cure sore mouth and gums. Rose leaves and mint were heated and applied outwardly to induce sleep.1 In addition, spearmint was used to treat sore throat, diarrhea, headaches, cramps and colds.2
Modern Medicinal Use
While spearmint has frequently been used in much the same way as peppermint, it has far less menthol, the primary active chemical constituent found in peppermint.3 It is useful in relieving intestinal gas.2 A recent study suggests that spearmint oil may be effective in inhibiting the growth of bacteria such as E. coli, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus.4
Modern Consumer Use
Spearmint oil is primarily used as a flavoring agent and can be found in baked goods, candies, chewing gums, desserts, processed fruits, and sauces.2 Spearmint leaves and extracts are used in beverages (alcoholic and nonalcoholic), and other foods. Spearmint leaves and oil are commonly found in herb teas as a flavoring, and in tinctures, capsules, and tablets for colds, fevers, and digestion.2 Spearmint oil is used to flavor toothpaste, mouthwash, and soap.
1 Grieve M. A Modern Herbal. New York: Dover Publications; 1971.
2 Leung AY, Foster S. Encyclopedia of Common Natural Ingredients Used in Food, Drugs, and Cosmetics. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley-Interscience; 1996.
3 Foster S, Tyler VE. Tyler’s Honest Herbal. 4nd ed. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Herbal Press; 2000.
4 Imai H, Osawa K, Yasuda H, Hamashima H, Arai T, Sasatsu M. Inhibition by the essential oils of peppermint and spearmint of the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Microbios. 2001; 106 Suppl 1:31-39.