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Peppermint Vs Spearmint Important Differences

peppermint vs spearmint

Peppermint and spearmint are the two most popular varieties of what we would widely consider to be mint. The mint family is huge and contains so many of our favorite herbs.

Peppermint and spearmint are both from the Lamiaceae family and the genus, mentha. Peppermint oil has a 40% concentrate of menthol compared to spearmints gentler 0.5%. Spearmint is used as a treatment for fevers or digestive issues, peppermint is used for pest repellent to treatment for IBS.

There is more to the differences and similarities to discover and then work out which is best for each dish.

“As for the garden of mint, the very smell of it alone recovers and refreshes our spirits, as the taste stirs up our appetite for meat.” 

Pliny The Elder, Roman Natural Historian

Differences Between Peppermint & Spearmint

The genus Mentha has more than 25 species sitting under it and an unknown number of cultivars within each species. Peppermint is the most common species and has the strongest ‘mint’ flavor. Spearmint is the next most popular and will have a much more gentle flavor.

Peppermint is a hybrid mint cross between watermint and spearmint. In 1753 botanist Carl Linnaeus categorized it as a species discovered in England. Pliny The Elder talks about spearmint being used in banquets as a potpourri creating a pleasant aroma for guests, an account from the 1st Century AD.

peppermint vs spearmint

Peppermint and Spearmint In The Garden

Popular with gardener’s due to the ease with which they grow, species from the Mentha genus are invasive and will need controlling in pots or containers. It is not enough to assume that a pathway or wall with foundations will contain the runners from each plant. Peppermint or spearmint will take over, but in a little pot by the back door work very well.

Peppermint is usually used as the mark of a plant that ‘not even you can kill’ but I have a friend who assures me he can! In fact I have seen the roots that both spearmint and peppermint put out appear in the field next to his garden as a means of escape! I’m really not sure how he manages it but then I suspect it may be a question of killing them with kindness.

If planted in most parts of Europe, Asia and Northern America both spearmint and peppermint should thrive. Both are known as invasive plants. Care must be taken to contain root systems, however propagation by roots is then possible making great little gifts for friends and neighbors.

Both spearmint and peppermint are herbaceous perennial plants that will survive a mild winter and maintain foliage, however harsher winters will require a dormant period.

HeightGrows to between 30cm-90cm (12-35inches) tall. In our garden we have containers that mean a limited height. Stems are squared and without hairs.Can grow to between 30cm and 1m (12-39inches) The stems are squared with a small amount of hair causing a fuzzy effect. You will see variation within the many cultivars as to levels of hair.
LeavesLeaves are darker than other species of mint and have purple to dark red veins. Up to 4cm (1 1/2inches) in width and reach lengths of 9cm (3 1/2inches) in length. Serrated edges are a bit like a saw tooth. The leaves are where the name ‘spear’mint came from as the leaf goes into a spearhead shape. They have the saw tooth edge of other mints and are roughly 9cm (3 1/2 inches) long and 3cm ( 1 1/4inches) wide. Lighter in color than the peppermint, but some cultivars do have hair on the leaves.
AromaRub or crush the leaves between thumb and fingers and you will release the essential oils and a lovely menthol and floral aroma.It is not possible to tell the mints apart from aroma alone, unless we are looking at specific cultivars. Crushing the leaves will release the essential oils for us to enjoy the menthol aroma.
PlantingPeppermint grows best in moist and shaded conditions. This is unusual for herbs as we tend to think they will require full sun and good drainage, but peppermint will also do well in partial sun.Spearmint will thrive in all soil types, found in boggy areas or full sunshine equally as often.

Spearmint and Peppermint In The Kitchen

Traditionally the two mints are used interchangeably in recipes. This is due to their similarity in the garden as well as aroma wise. It is not until you taste test that the strength of peppermint will hit you, or the sweetness of spearmint. Peppermint will hold it’s flavor better when cooked or frozen.

If you want an intensely minty hot chocolate go for peppermint. Ice cream is always best to use fresh peppermint rather than spearmint. If you are adding to vinegar to make a mint sauce for lamb then it may also be best to use peppermint to ensure the flavor stands up to the acidic effects.

Spearmint is more suited to a refreshing mojito or even as a herbal tea with other herbs blended in. Perfect as a garnish or added to yoghurt to make tzatziki. Spearmint will work well in cooking but you will need to increase your ratio from the recipe if it is intended for peppermint.

If you are using fresh peppermint instead of spearmint go for the ratio 2 teaspoons of peppermint = 1 tablespoon of spearmint.

Spearmint Vs Peppermint In Traditional & Modern Medicines

When looking at traditional medicines it can be easy to dismiss the older uses for herbs. However when we then look to modern research we tend to see that compounds and active ingredients in our herbs are useful in fighting very modern illnesses. Mint has a well documented history and will have a great future should research continue as it has done so far.

Traditional UsesModern Uses, Research & Studies
PeppermintLeaves used topically on itching and areas of burns. Herbal decoction used to treat minor ailments.A review in 2006 shows a link in animal studies between the use of peppermint extract and the relaxation of the gastrointestinal tract. This is not yet under enough research to prove safe for humans and will need further studies.
A review in 2018 pointed towards it’s efficacy in treating the symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrom.
SpearmintThe Romans added spearmint to bathwater, perfumes and food and wines. As well as using the stewed leaves as a potpourri in their banqueting areas. Mint tea was used to aid digestion and Pliny even suggested a crown of mint to help aid concentration.A study in 2009 focused on spearmint herbal tea and polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). This is still at the early stages and further research is needed. As silly as Pliny may sound a 2019 study into concentration levels and the use of proprietary spearmint extract (PSE) showed a link to limiting the effects of memory loss.

As with a lot of traditional medicines there is still room for more research. Often the active ingredient is isolated and then researched. This can mean we lose the ability to understand safe doses of the main ingredients. With this in mind always consult a qualified medical professional before seeking to use more alternative medicines.

What Next?

Get creative with your cooking and planting! Use peppermint and spearmint in many more dishes to bring out those health benefits and use as a flavor enhancer.

Medicinal UsesCulinary Uses
Mentha × piperita
Peppermint oil is used in tablet form to treat symptoms of IBS and the herbal tea can help to do the same. Used topically to relieve muscle pain and relief from itching.Used on it’s own. Peppermint will have a hot peppery kick that is due to the intensity of the menthol (40%) and this will mean it dominates a dish. Peppermint tea is best as just peppermint tea with no other botanicals added. Candy canes at Christmas or used to make Peppermint thins.
Mentha spicata
Traditionally used in the treatment of fevers and stomach upsets, spearmint is now being researched for the active ingredient terpenoid carvone as a treatment to inhibit the growth of tumors. Spearmint is sweeter than Peppermint and has the active ingredient of carvone with a softer more gentle flavor. Meaning you can use spearmint to enhance other flavors, rack of lamb, with tabbouleh, in mojitos, even as a herbal tea mixed with chamomile or other gentle flavors.

One extraordinary use for peppermint is the way the roots can bioaccumulate radium. This means they can work through radioactive soil and collect the radium and store it. Meaning there is scope to use the plants to clear ground that might otherwise be unusable. For me this seems a little bit too much like the start of a Sci Fi movie, but it could have some wide reaching benefits.

Further Reading

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