Herbs: Jamaican Peppermint; Culinary Uses and Nutrition

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Jamaican peppermint (Satureja viminea) is an aromatic herb little known outside of its native Central America and the Caribbean where it is valued for its culinary uses, nutrition and medicinal properties.

Jamaican peppermint is an attractive evergreen shrub that originates from Central American and became naturalized in the West Indies, where it is known as a culinary and medicinal herb. When rubbed, the leaves of this herb exude a fragrance and flavor very similar to peppermint, although this herb is not from the mentha genus of plants but from the Satureja, or savory herb species.

Jamaican peppermint, botanical name Satureja viminea or Micromeria viminea is commonly known as Costa Rican mint bush, Jamaican mint, Serpentine savory, Jamaican mint tree, Kama Sutra mint tree and menta de palo (Spanish)

This herb is one of thirty, or so, species of the savory genus of plants that is the least known and probably the hardest to find. The two best know culinary herbs of this genus being winter savory (Satureja montana) and summer savory (Satureja hortensia). Both herbs are hardy, European natives and have a flavor similar to thyme. Another popular savory is yerba buena (Satureja douglasii), which is named after David Douglas (1798-1834), the Scottish botanist who explored and documented plant genera of the America West, circa 1825. Yerba Buena has a mint flavor and is used to make medicinal tea that is good for stomach upsets and flue symptoms.

The name Satureja may be derived from the Greek 'saturos' or 'satyrs' and (a troop of male pipe players, whom were led by Silenus) associated with fertility. The association is attributed to the possible aphrodisiacs effects of Savory herbs.

Jamaican peppermint or Satureja viminea has lime green, oval shaped leaves and bears tiny tubular flowers in early summer. Unlike many of its relatives, this woody stemmed sub shrub prefers the warmth of the tropics and is destroyed in temperatures below 32°F; although it can be grown in containers in colder regions. It grows wild in Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Trinidad and many other Caribbean Islands.

Culinary Uses: In the Caribbean, particularly in Trinidad and Jamaica, Jamaican peppermint leaves are ground and used as a spice to season meats. This herb often replaces mint in recipes, including the Jamaican version of the mojito, which is made with dark as apposed to white rum. Jamaican peppermint leaves are also used to make a refreshing herbal breakfast tea sometimes combined with ginger and sugar for added flavor. Medicinally, the tea is known as a remedy for colic; it has curative properties and improves digestion.

Nutrition: Satureja viminea is nutritious and is considered to have antioxidant, digestive, expectorant, sedative, stomachic and carminative qualities. It is a source of protein, carbohydrate and dietary fiber, which helps lower LDL or bad cholesterol. Satureja, or herbs of the savory family, contain the flavonoids vitamin A or beta-carotene, vitamin C and B complex vitamins. They are a source of the minerals, iron, calcium, magnesium, niacin, thiamine, potassium and zinc.

  • The essential oils of Jamaican peppermint contain pulegone, a type of monoterpene, which produces the herbs minty scent, also found in pennyroyal ( Mentha pulegium). Pulegone has traditionally been used to repel mice and insects, suggesting that it is mildly toxic, although research has revealed that heating plant leaves that contain the substance helps neutralize any harmful effects. The herb Mentha pulegium, also known as pudding grass, is an ingredient in black pudding, from Northern England and also chorizo in Spain.
  • Essential volatile oils from plants in the Satureja genus, such as winter savory and Jamaican peppermint, contain a number of important compounds such as carvacrol, thymol and p-cymene. Both thymol and carvacrol have antiseptic, antifungal properties and are produced and used in the food industry as preservatives or food additives. Moreover, researchers in the pharmaceutical industry have discovered that compounds in the herbs have anti-inflammatory activities, comparable to morphine, and could be developed into anti-inflammatory, analgesic drugs.

Image credit: Yerba buena (satureja douglasii) is closely related to Jamaican peppermint. Primary image Satureja Montana; image credit.

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