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How do you use extra mint leaves? Here are 12 marvelous uses for mint around the home and garden—from culinary to medicinal to mouthwash to bug repellent!
Meet the Mints
What do you know about the mint family, Lamiaceae, the sixth- or seventh-largest of the flowering plant families?
The most common and popular mints for growing are peppermint (Mentha × piperita), native spearmint (Mentha spicata), Scotch spearmint (Mentha x gracilis), and cornmint (Mentha arvensis); also (more recently) apple mint (Mentha suaveolens).
Mint provides most of our common culinary herbs (e.g., basil, oregano, marjoram, rosemary, sage, thyme, and summer and winter savories).
Plus, there are dozens (perhaps hundreds) of traditional medicinal herbs, not to mention many aromatics for use in flavorings, perfumes, and cosmetics.
You’ll also find mints among our favorite landscaping plants. Think salvias, agastaches, lavenders, bee-balms, hyssop, and Russian sage. All summer, they produce nectar-rich blossoms, which attract bees and beneficial pollinators, along with an occasional hummingbird.
A favorite in my summer herb garden is the bright red bee balm which seeds itself all over the place, makes a great cut flower, and serves as a tasty tea to boot.
Many, if not most mint-family members, contain strongly aromatic oils (think lavender, rosemary, basil, thyme, and sage), which account for their many uses as seasoning, flavoring, and perfuming agents.
12 Uses for Mint Leaves
There are many safe uses for mint-family herbs besides beautifying your gardens. Here is just a sampling:
Food: The peppermints are especially good culinary mints, ideal for chopping into salads, sprinkling over fruits, or combining with basil or cilantro to make mint pesto. We like to add a couple of tablespoons of fresh chopped mint to peas, green beans, carrots, cauliflower, or zucchini to create minted vegetables!
Drinks: Freeze a few trays of strong mint tea, then use the ice cubes for cooling summer drinks! Add mint leaves or cubes to mojitos, iced tea, or fresh lemonade.
Tea: Why buy mint tea when it’s so easy to make? What we usually call the “mints” (peppermint, spearmint, apple mint, etc.) are traditional tea herbs. Just steep your fresh mint leaves in boiling water for about five minutes and serve. It’s a great digestive aid after dinner. Apple mint is one of my favorites, with more mint flavor and less aftertaste.
Hair rinse: Add strong mint (especially rosemary) tea to one part cider vinegar for a conditioning rinse you can leave in or rinse out. The vinegary smell dissipates after drying.
Facial astringent: Add a few finely minced leaves of fresh peppermint or other mints to a cup of witch hazel. Store in a glass jar for a week or more, shaking occasionally. Strain the herbs from the mixture after a week.
Mouthwash: Chop a quarter cup of fresh mint, bee-balm, lemon balm, basil, thyme, or oregano leaves and infuse in a quart of boiling water. When cool, strain the herbs and store in the refrigerator.
Mint bath. Steep a handful of mint leaves in a pint of hot water for about ten minutes, then strain. Add to bath water for an invigorating, stress-free soak.
Ease sunburn pain: Make a strong peppermint tea and refrigerate the mixture for several hours. To use, gently apply to the burned area with cotton pads.
Breath freshener: Just chew on a few mint leaves! Sage teas and extracts have been used for centuries as a mouthwash for oral infections. Don’t use chew mint-family herbs if you’re breastfeeding, as even small amounts of sage and peppermint may reduce milk supply.
Scent up a space: Keep your home smelling fresh by adding a few drops of mint essential oil to your favorite unscented cleaner, or just take a cotton ball and dap onto a light bulb.
Moth repellent/scented sachet: Tie a few branches of strongly scented mint (peppermint, sage, lavender, rosemary, bee-balm) together, or pull off a handful of leaves, and stuff them into the leg of an old nylon stocking. Suspend by a string inside a garment bag, tuck into bags of stored woolen clothing, or just place in your drawers to let your clothes soak up the scent. Refresh periodically to keep the scent fresh.
Bug repellent: When ants come into the kitchen during the summer, placing a few stems of mint, gently crushed, near suspected entry points really does deter ants. You need to replace the mint with fresh material every few days. Also, keep pets flea-free by stuffing a small pillow with fresh spearmint and thyme and placing it near your pet’s bed. You could try these other natural bug repellents too.
Of course, mint isn’t only used to deter bugs; it also attracts beneficial insects. Bees and butterflies and hoverflies love mint, which is rich in nectar and pollen, and this benefits pollinated plants and crops.
Medicinal Use of Mint Plants
Mint has been long known as an herbal remedy, easing queasy stomachs, calming stress and anxiety, and promoting restful sleep.
Peppermint tea has long been viewed as an excellent way to ease an upset stomach, calm the digestive tract and alleviate indigestion, gas, and cramps.
Mint has also been used for centuries in traditional medicine. Many, perhaps most, are also being used for human and veterinary medicine, as insecticides or insect repellents, and as antifungal or antibacterial protection for crop plants.
Mints are potent plants, full of phytocompounds that plants manufacture to protect themselves against harmful bacteria, viruses, and other assaults from the environments they evolved in.
Interestingly, there are studies that show spearmint is even beneficial to honeybees by cleaning out the mites that infect their hives.
But Use With Caution
If herbal medicine interests you, please approach the mints, especially their essential oils, tinctures, and concentrated extracts, with care. This goes for both over-the-counter and homemade remedies.
Although many have been used by traditional healers around the world for centuries, most herbs haven’t undergone rigorous testing for safety and efficacy, especially in pregnant/nursing women, children, elders, and people with chronic illnesses.
Seek out as much information as you can from books, online sources, and experienced herbalists in your area. Inform your healthcare practitioner whenever you begin using an herbal remedy.
Most herbalists recommend staying away from ingesting essential oils as medicines unless under the care and observation of a medical provider experienced with herbal medicines. Out of an abundance of caution, herbalists also urge pregnant and breastfeeding moms, as well as people with serious chronic diseases, to avoid even using mint-family essential oils in massage oils.
Many mint-family species contain potent phytocompounds that affect the endocrine system, sometimes dramatically. For example, sage and peppermint, even as tea or food flavorings, can reduce the milk supply in breastfeeding women. The essential oil of pennyroyal, historically used to induce menstruation or as an abortifacient, can be lethal if ingested in a large enough dose to accomplish those purposes.
Some mints contain strongly psychoactive compounds. Among the most potent: the hallucinogenic Salvia divinorum, whose use and/or sale has been banned in many nations, as well as half of U.S. states.
Discover Lemon Balm
You may have heard that mint takes over the garden. It’s mainly spearmint that gives a lot of mints a bad name. Peppermint pretty much stays put as its stolons are short and shallow. Also, peppermint rarely produces viable seeds, so you won’t find it popping up in different garden beds.
Wild spearmint is the real bully, developing an enormous network of tough, quarter-inch-thick rhizomes under flower beds, spilling out into a large section of lawn, sending up a new plant every inch or two from the underground nodes. I’ve pulled up yards and yards and yards of the ropey invaders, but they still keep coming.
But if you are cultivating spearmint in your garden, just give this attractive ground cover plenty of room to spread. Or, plant mint in a container such as a terracotta pot near the kitchen window. In the ground, it’s ideal to grow spearmint in its own bed. But if you want to grow mint in a bed with other herbs or plants, consider sinking a deep bucket or tub without holes into the soil and plant into that. Otherwise, spearmint will choke out other plants in the bed.
When cold weather approaches, plants can be lifted and brought indoors in their own pots to give fresh leaves through the first part of winter.
Note: It is best to grow mints from cuttings, roots, or transplants. The mint seed does not come true to type.
Margaret Boyles is a longtime contributor to The Old Farmer’s Almanac. She wrote for UNH Cooperative Extension, managed NH Outside, and contributes to various media covering environmental and human health issues. Read More from Margaret Boyles