Poléo: The Meandering Ways of Wild Mint
by Kiva Ringtail Rose
Botanical Name: Mentha arvensis (often considered synonymous with M. canadensis)
Common Names: Wild Mint, Corn Mint, Brook Mint, Horse Mint, Corn Mint
Energetic Tendencies: Variable temperature, dry
Taste/Impression: Aromatic, acrid
Actions: diaphoretic, stimulant nervine, aromatic digestive (including carminative), emmenagogue, spasmolytic, choleretic (via regulating liver qi.)
Tucked in among the opalescent hedges of Bluestem Willows and silver-skinned Canyon Alders that line the San Francisco River’s lush banks, a wreath of lavender spikes adorn the square stems of the River Mint. In the thick underbrush of our bosque, it can be easy to overlook this sprawling wildflower until you sit or step on it, and the sharp yet sweet minty aroma fills the air. The distinctive fragrance, square stems, and punk-rock spiked flower-do make it easy to recognize, and its wild abundance makes it a great plant for all herbalists and foragers to know about.
Here in the arid southwestern New Mexico, I only see Wild Mint growing where it can keep its feet wet, usually along rivers and creeks, or near seeps in moist meadows or riparian canyons. However, I’d imagine that in wetter environments, this would also be a common herb of fields, roadsides, and perhaps even the back yard or hedgerow. Like many of our most well-known herbs for food and healing, mints of various species are ubiquitous throughout much of the temperate world. Appreciated for food, beverage, medicine, chasing pesky insects away, fragrance, and more, there’s a wide range of traditions and sources to draw upon for inspiration and information.
Most folks just call this plant Wild Mint or Brook Mint, but in the Spanish-infused culture of my home, it’s just as likely to be referred to as Poléo, a name I’ll be using frequently in this exploration of Mentha arvensis. Additionally, I’d like to note that in this article (as usual) I’m speaking only of my personal experience with the plant, and only of preparations I’ve made myself, and so this doesn’t include uses of the essential oil.
The overall pattern of Mint’s action has to do with initiating movement, usually through mixed stimulant and relaxant actions, which is to be expected from its both aromatic and acrid taste and impression. I find it fitting that many Mentha species tend to grow alongside moving water, as the Mints themselves are very much about allowing and redirecting flow. This can be seen in the way it relaxes tense, cramping muscles, how it can free the flow of belated menses, moves stagnant energy, increases peripheral circulation, and even helps regulate the movement of stuck liver function. This moving, meandering tendency of Mint can even be felt in the mouth, in its tongue-tingling impression that brings a feeling refreshment and awakeness.
The Tongue Tingling Goodness of River Mint: Food Uses
There’s no shortage of widely available recipes involving all manner of Mentha species, so I’ll just touch on a few ideas here. One of my favorite ways to eat our River Mint is in the form of various pestos. Some people find the flavor too strong on its own, but it blends very well with the sharp spice of Oregano de la Sierra (Monarda fistulosa var. menthifolia) or the green freshness of Sweet Clover (Melilotus spp.), or the mild but mineral-laden vibrance of Nettles (Urtica spp.)
Infused in vinegar, Poléo makes a great addition to many salad dressings, or diluted with cold water it can be a refreshing drink during the hottest days of a long Summer, especially with a bit of Mint-infused honey or molasses. There are many times for specific recipes of this type, from switchel to oxymel to many more exotic terms, they’re all yummy and come with their own fascinating bits of history and culture.
I very much enjoy Moroccan style tea made with high quality gunpowder green tea, Wild Mint, Lemon Verbena, and sometimes a pinch of Mugwort or Wormwood. Wild Mint is also very lovely in all manner of aperitif type drinks, and can be made into a syrup for adding a variety of mixed drinks for pleasure. It infuses into wine well, whether homemade or storebought.
Diaphoresis, the Immune System, and Gypsy Tea
One of the most useful overall actions in an herb is the ability to increase peripheral circulation, and thus trigger diaphoreses when required. Diaphoretics are most thought of in cold/flu, usually when there’s a fever present, and most especially when the fever has become unproductive. Diaphoretic teas have been used for as long as most can recall for “breaking a fever” by increasing the peripheral circulation, usually until a visible sweat appears on the person, which is often followed by a timely recovery. Because of this, people tend to think of diaphoretics as simply causing sweating, but this is a vast oversimplification of a much more vital function of the immune system.
The single most classic diaphoretic tea is mostly likely the herbal triplet of Elderflower, Mint, and Yarrow, often called Gypsy Tea (a name which may either flatter or piss off your local Roma population). Your standard Peppermint can work quite nicely there, or try an especially spicy species of Monarda if you need an extra stimulating and warming formula, but Mentha arvensis is the plant I use most often for the Mint part of the recipe. It’s strong tasting, but won’t burn the tongue like a Monarda can, and kicks up the peripheral circulation with little fuss. Plus, it grows right down by the river pretty much year round and I can even my 11 year old daughter down to fetch some up to the cabin, as it’s both easily recognized and locally abundant.
A strong mint like this is both stimulating and relaxing to some degree, but much more toward the stimulating end of the spectrum overall. It excels at moving stagnation throughout the body, including the circulation, which is exactly why it’s so incredibly useful in diaphoretic teas at the onset of a cold or flu, or when that same cold/flu has decided to try and stick around rather than moving along at a polite pace.
The idea of stimulating versus relaxing diaphoretics can seem confusing or intimidating at first glance, but really it’s quite common sense. Indications for relaxant diaphoretics include signs of excess tension such as restlessness, irritability, a rapid pulse, a flushed face and red tongue, insomnia, tight muscles, and jerky, rapid movements. Indications for stimulating diaphoretics include signs of excess laxity such as lethargy, weakness, pallor, slow pulse, pale tongue, apathy, subjective feelings of coldness, and an aversion to wind and cold.
If truly in doubt it usually works pretty well to give a formula that’s a mix of relaxant and stimulating diaphoretics such as the basic Elderflower/Mint/Yarrow one given above. Mints can work in almost any case, with Spearmint more appropriate for small children or those of delicate constitution, with Peppermint and River Mint being more called for in the average adult or an especially robust little one. Note that for diaphoretic teas to be effective they need to be taken very warm to hot in temperature, preferably while the person is bundled up.
Moving the Digestive Currents
Just as River Mint has a way with moving sluggish circulation, it is likewise quite adept at helping stagnant belly energy on its way. This is particularly useful where there’s bloating, epigastric pressure, constipation, and/or the desire to burp but the inability to do so, with the excess air staying firmly stuck somewhere in the vicinity of the chest cavity. As with most gut/digestive issues, tea is often preferable for this sort of thing, but tincture, elixir, syrup, infused vinegar, or similar can also work if that’s what you have on hand.
Keep in mind that Mentha species can aggravate some cases of acid reflux, and is generally most appropriate where energy needs to be moved up, whereas something like acid reflux is a clear sign of energy that needs to be rooted and pushed down. If Mint doesn’t work, there’s stuck belly energy, but you can’t figure out what direction it needs to go in, try an Artemisia instead.
Mint can also be one of our most effective herbs for nausea, especially lingering nausea after food poisoning or stomach flu. Again, it’s generally most helpful as a tea for this application, although I have seen the tincture/elixir have a notable effect when the tea is not available. Mint is doubly useful post flu or food poisoning because of how useful its anti-spasmodic action can be on residual gut cramping. I’ve certainly seen Mint’s belly settling powers in clients, but got an extra personal bit of experience with this particular action when I caught the flu about a month before last year’s Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, and I couldn’t seem to shake the nausea, dizziness, and weakness long after the actual virus had moved on. Strong Mint tea set all that to rest for several hours though, and I could be seen wandering around firmly attached to my thermos of Peppermint and Wild Mint tea throughout the event.
Alongside Mint’s related digestive effects, it can be very useful in cases where there’s stagnant depression that is accompanied by bloating, and sometimes by lack of appetite overall. Traditional healers have long known that our emotions and state of mind are intimately tied to gut health, while conventional medicine is just beginning to catch up with this notion that was only recently considered radical by the mainstream.
As a side note, I have not seen Mentha species be as useful in motion sickness, where I’m more likely to suggest Peach leaf or Ginger. It does work sometimes, but not as consistently as the other aforementioned herbs.
Releasing the Flow: Poléo as Emmenagogue
A distinctive trait among the Mentha genus specific to Poléo is its high pulegone content, also found in Pennyroyal, that causes this species to be a very effective emmenagogue. It’s most indicated where the menses are late, there’s a feeling of heaviness and bloating, and a distinct feeling of stuckness in the pelvic area, sometimes (but not always) accompanied by dull, intermittent cramping. It teams up well with Ginger where there’s feelings of coldness along with the other symptoms, and Motherwort where there’s more likely to be overheatedness, a flushed face, and a quick temper.
This particular action makes the plant inadvisable during pregnancy, especially the early stages of a delicate pregnancy. However, the chances of successfully using this plant to purposely terminate even a very early stage of pregnancy are basically nil, so it’s probably not worthwhile making yourself ill feeling with massive doses trying (same applies to the whole plant of Pennyroyal).
Meanders & Other Thoughts
Something not generally discussed in contemporary Western Herbalism in regards to Mentha spp. is their specific effect on the hepatic system. Particularly with Peppermint and Poléo, this genus has particular affinity for clearing unresolving rashes that are triggered by liver wind and heat, as in many cases of acute hepatitis or flareups in chronic hepatitis. Tea or tincture can work in this situation.
Additionally, Wild Mint (and other allied species), can be great for helping to relieve pain and inflammation of sore throats from acute cold/flu onset, especially if accompanied by a fever. I like to make simple honey pastilles using finely ground herbs in approximately equal proportions of Rose petals, Wild Mint leaves, Marshmallow root, and Sage leaf.
Wild Mint is amenable to a great many preparations, but it’s important to keep in mind that the aromatics are a large portion of what you’re after, so you don’t want to lose them through too much heat processing or evaporation. A simple but strong tea is often the best way for most folks. Most find it tasty that way, and even more so if blended with other Mentha species, a bit of Lemon Balm, and/or some honey.
I do often make an elixir with brandy or rum and local desert wildflower honey to have something more easily transportable on hand… but really, a thermos or travel cup is pretty convenient as well, and many of Mint’s most important actions just work better when its taken hot, even if that means a couple squirts of tincture taken in a cup of hot water.
Also, I do make some of my standard bitters blends with various mints included for its carminative and overall digestive stimulating effects. Below you’ll find a simple recipe for just such a general bitters formula.
Wild River Bitters Blend
- 1 part Dandelion leaf/root (preferably Spring harvested)
- 1 part Mugwort (or whate ver local Artemisia spp. you have on hand, more used if its a less bitter species like A. vulgaris and less for super bitter species.)
- 1 part Wild Mint flowering tops
These can be tinctured either fresh or dried in your preferred alcohol, and a portion of something like raw honey, molasses or maple syrup can be added for specific medicinal reasons, or simply to satisfy your taste buds. A dropperful (or a teaspoonful, if you prefer) 15 minutes before eating can help stimulate digestion after a heavy meal, or if you tend to experience bloating after eating. I do suggest fine tuning bitters blends for the individual, but this is a nice general formula to keep on hand.
Wild Mint is generally a safe, food-like herb, and the tea, pesto, and similar preparations can all be taken to taste and satisfaction, except for in pregnant women (in which case just substitute a milder mint like Spearmint in food-like preparations), without much cause for concern. In a medicinal sense, if Poléo is going to work for nausea, it’ll probably cause the symptoms to abate within the first half cup or so of tea. If it doesn’t help then, it’s worth trying something else.
Not advisable during pregnancy due to emmenagogue action. Can aggravate some cases of acid reflux. Generally a safe, pleasant, and well tolerated herb by a wide variety of folks but not constitutionally appropriate in large doses or over long periods of time for those debilitated from chronic illness, especially if profuse sweating exists as a symptom.
References and Resources:
Moore, Michael - Medicinal Plants of the Mountain West, 2nd Edition
Ross, Jeremy – Combining Western Herbs and Chinese Medicine: A Clinical Materia Medica