Mint Family Collection: Mentha piperita (peppermint), Melissa officinalis (lemon balm), and Lavandula angustifolia (English lavender)
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Painting by Esther Carpi
Emily Dickinson’s Herbarium was the inspiration for my collective portrait of medicinal mints. I experimented with pressing sprigs of mint and balm but eventually I decided to paint the plants as they might appear newly taped to the paper prior to pressing so that more color and leaf body could be portrayed.
I will never plant another herb without wondering if it was used for other purposes besides cooking. I am currently working on a series of six watercolors portraying the herbs in my garden in the same style of the mint collection piece. This will keep me busy doing the two things I love most, gardening and painting what grows in my garden.
Mints were often used in combination to make a medicine more palatable. An old recipe for a “Blood Cleanser” for example, calls for “1 part wormwood”, a potent and bitter herb, with “4 parts peppermint leaves”. (Lust p.459) Thomas Jefferson, in a 1794 list of “objects for the garden” includes lavender, lemon balm, and peppermint. (Betts, p.213) All three are European imports.
Seventeenth century herbalist Nicolas Culpeper described peppermint as “useful for the complaints of the stomach, such as wind and vomiting, for which there are few remedies of greater efficacy.” (Culpeper, p.126)
Mrs. Childs’ 1837
popular home health manual, “The Family Nurse,” declares that peppermint has “more general use” than other mints “for wind, spasmodic pains,
nausea, &c.; likewise to cover the taste of disagreeable medicines, and
diminish their griping effects. The fresh herb bruised and applied to the pit
of the stomach often allays sickness and is especially useful in the cholera of
children. Of the strong infusion, a gill or two may be drunk occasionally. Of
the essence, fifteen or twenty drops in a little hot water sweetened. Of the
oil, two or three drops. The essence, applied two or three times, is sure to
scatter blisters forming on the lips, if it be done as soon as their approach
is suspected." (Childs, p.107 )
Contemporary herbalist John Lust notes the plant’s the smell of menthol and lists its uses as an antispasmodic, carminative, cholagogue, stomachic, and tonic. (Lust, p. 275) There are many scientifically supported therapeutic uses of peppermint oil. Several clinical trials document its effectiveness in treating non-ulcerous dyspepsia, spastic colon syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), tension headaches, and post operative abdominal distention. Peppermint is a carminative in many antacids, counterirritant in topical analgesics, as well as a decongestant in inhalants and lozenges. It is also an effective antiseptic in mouthwashes, gums, and toothpastes. Peppermint is also useful as a CNS stimulant, bronchial dilator and insect repellant. Most of the pharmacological effects of peppermint essential oil is due to its high content of menthol.
CAUTION: Menthol can induce laryngeal and bronchial spasms in infants and young children. (NSD)
Culpeper: “It is very good to help digestion and open obstructions of the brain, and hath so much purging quality in it (saith Avicen) as to expel those melancholy vapours from the spirits and blood which are in the heart and arteries, although it cannot do so in other parts of the body.” He goes on to recommend: “Let a syrup made with the juice of it and sugar be kept in every gentlewoman’s house to relieve the weak stomachs and sick bodies of their poor and sickly neighbours.” (Culpeper, p.21)
John Lust echoes Culpeper’s description: “Used as an antispasmodic, calmative, carminative, diaphoretic, emmenagogue, stomachic. Balm is touted as a remedy for common female complaints and is useful for all sorts of nervous problems, hysteria, melancholy, and insomnia. Use the crushed leaves as a poultice for sores, tumors, milk-knots and insect bites. Balm is also used in herb pillows because of its agreeable odor.” (Lust, p.105) However the strongest scientific evidence for the therapeutic use of lemon balm is in treating herpes simplex virus infections due to its potent antiviral activity. There is some evidence that lemon balm may also be effective in treating anxiety (has a mild sedative effect) and decreasing agitation in dementia. Lemon balm may also be useful in treating dyspepsia. (NSD).
Historically lavender had multiple uses. Culpepper observed that lavender “strengthens the stomach, and frees the liver and spleen from obstructions.” He added, “It is of especial use for pains in the head and brain, following cold, apoplexy, falling-sickness, the dropsy or sluggish malady, cramps, convulsions, palsies and faintings. It provokes women’s courses, and expels the dead child and afterbirth.” (Culpeper, p.110)
Lavender essential oil has mild sedative effects and has been widely used throughout the world in a variety of conditions. Current research documents the potential effectiveness of lavender aromatherapy in decreasing anxiety and mental stress and in the treatment of insomnia. There is also some evidence that it may be useful in decreasing aggressive and agitated behavior in patients with dementia. The component linalool in the essential fraction has broad spectrum activity against many bacteria and fungi. (NSD)