I remember finding it in childhood. I was crouched behind a woodpile in a twilight game of Kick the Can with my cousins. My foot crunched a patch of fuzzy green leaves, and a sharp smell split the air. Familiar. Sweet. I pulled a leaf, tapped it between my teeth.
There’s a thrill to finding wild mint, especially as a child. Maybe it’s the idea that you can find food—actual edible plants—in the woods. Never mind the admonition “don’t put that in your mouth, you don’t know what it is.” The smell and taste of wild mint clocks us right between the eyes: “Ah,” you think. “This I know.”
Not that you should fill your mouth with unidentified wild plants when the mood strikes you. But mint is all around in Northern Michigan if you know what to look for. Along sandy shores, in meadow borders or damp woods, mint is one of the surest signs of spring, establishing itself in late April with the first hint of sun. If you’re like most people, you feel compelled to pick it, loving, at least, the crushed smell on your palms. But mint isn’t just some woodland novelty. Pick a sprig and take a closer look. It’s a veritable wonder plant that begs to be used, with a long and colorful history.
The human love affair with mint goes way back, beyond our relatively recent compulsions for Girl Scout Cookies and fresh breath. It shows up in the Bible here and there, used as currency by the Pharisees to pay their tithes (Matt. 23:23; Luke 11:42). But mint derived its name from Greek mythology. When Hades kidnapped the maid Persephone to the underworld to be his bride, her mother, Demeter, went in search of her. There, Demeter (who happened to be the goddess of agriculture) encountered the nymph Minthe, Hades’ concubine. In a moment of spite, Demeter turned her into the plant that still bears her name. The ancient Greeks later loved to perfume their bodies with different scents for particular areas, and chose mint for the arms.
The lovely Minthe is still a seductress, albeit in the slightly less romantic form of, say, aftershave, toothpaste, medicine and candy. Mint lends its heady aroma and flavor to everything from cigarettes and snuff to candles, sweets and potpourri. Much of that flavoring comes from mint oil, which is extracted from the plant through a steam distillation process and is so potent that one pound of it is enough to flavor 135,000 sticks of gum.
The scent and taste of mint has been found in cultures worldwide: cultivated by the Egyptians for ointments, lending tang to Middle Eastern cuisine, adding zest to English teas. It shows up in spells to encourage prosperity and is even sewn into dream pillows to attract visions of the future. And a good sniff of mint is said to soothe headaches and invigorate the senses.
While some of the largest peppermint crops in the world grow in our own backyard—St. Johns, Michigan, north of Lansing—the mint of Northern Michigan, like many things up here, knows no fences or boundaries. But what we pluck from our balmy lakeshore is generally not “wild,” or native mint, but tasty (and useful) peppermint and spearmint gone A.W.O.L. from English-style gardens planted by early settlers. These plants were imported and spread like crazy, because if there’s any one general characteristic of mint, it’s that it’s hard to kill.