The thought of peppermint is likely to evoke its distinctive sweet, menthol aroma. The pure oil itself, as well as extracts of the oil, are widely used as food flavorings. Most of us have encountered the cool, refreshing aroma and flavor of peppermint essential oil in chewing gum, candy, breath mints, toothpaste and mouthwash.
Peppermint belongs to the labiatae family of plants, along with other well known herbs like lavender and rosemary. Although up to 600 kinds of mints have been classified, most are probably variants and hybrids of around 25 well-defined species.
Mints hybridize easily; many differently scented and colorful plants have been produced both in the wild and by plant hybridizers. Mint plants are popular as ornamentals, often cultivated as fragrant herb garden plants. They tend to spread rapidly via underground stems -- to the point that some gardeners consider them invasive weeds.
The two primary cultivated mints are peppermint (Mentha piperita) and spearmint (Mentha spicata). Spearmint has a strongly sweet aroma, almost creamy and candy-like with a sharp menthol undertone.
The aroma of peppermint isn't quite as suave as spearmint. It has a strongly penetrating menthol aroma with a sweet undertone.
Most botanists agree that peppermint is a hybrid of the sharply scented water mint (Mentha aquatica) and spearmint. Its balance of sharp and sweet aroma characteristics support this classification.
The oil is distilled from freshly cut, partially dried plant tops. These are cut just before the plants come into flower so the oil will have the best balance of fragrant constituents. If allowed to over-mature, the quantity and quality of the resulting oil will suffer, developing off-aromas that can be sharp, bitter and overly menthol-scented.
The primary constituent of peppermint oil is menthol, which causes a physical reaction when inhaled or applied to the skin. Menthol produces an immediate and pronounced sensation of coolness which the body reacts to quite strongly, producing its own "warming effect" as blood flows into the area of application. This physical sensation impresses the senses as a "medicinal" effect and is partially responsible for peppermint's long history of use as medicine. Today menthol is often found in sports creams and chest rubs.
The English herbalist Culpeper stated that mints are:
. . . of warm subtle parts; great strengtheners of the stomach. Their fragrance betokens them cephalics; they effectually take off nauseousness and retchings . . .
Peppermint tea is very refreshing after a heavy meal. Inhaling its clean, penetrating aroma can help clear the head as well.
Peppermint oil can be both energizing and soothing. This isn't as contradictory as it seems if one takes into account peppermint's unique aroma and the constituent menthol. At first cooling and bracing, then warming and comforting, the body and mind seem to tune into and benefit from the needed characteristic.
Sweet Clarity Blend
Many aromatherapy blends formulated to be energizing can be a bit too brisk and overpowering. But this blend combines oils that yield an energizing benefit with sweetly scented ones, making a combination that's pleasant and uplifting. This blend is wonderful inhaled directly from the bottle or diffused when studying for a test or sitting through a long meeting.
Make a Consternation Massage by adding 3 drops of the Sweet Clarity blend to 1 ounce of sweet almond vegetable oil. Apply a few drops of this mixture to the fingertips and gently massage the temples during times of stress and confusion. A little aromatherapy interlude can sometimes ease you through the trials of your day.