A Mess of Mint

In an overgrown herb patch, a hitn of health, a family line and leaves of black history

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By Constance Garcia-Barrio

"Your mint’s running amok,” my neighbor, an avid gardener, said one sunny afternoon. “Let it go much longer, you’ll need a machete to hack it down.”

Despite the warning, I aimed to let the mint keep growing, though I didn’t say so. Mint has wound its way through generations of many of us black Americans. “In 1792, a man, aged 72, was cured of the stone by taking the expelled juice of red onions and horse mint…” Samuel Stearns wrote in his 1801 Materia Medica. “The discovery was made by a Negro in Virginia, who obtained his freedom thereby.” My elders don’t claim such stellar results, yet mint has long played a role in our health.

From my great-grandmother, Rose Wilson Ware, or just Maw, came herbal remedies from slavery time.  Born into bondage around 1851 near Partlow, Virginia, Maw lived until 1964, 113 years. For her and many other enslaved blacks, herbal medicine meant survival. She used mint for stomach complaints and to ease morning sickness—maybe on the advice of Aunt Alsie Ellis, the local midwife—during her pregnancies with the first generation of children born free.  

When my mother put down roots in Philadelphia in the late 1920s, she hid some of her heritage, afraid that being both black and Southern would shackle her to low-wage jobs.  She hired a speech therapist, worked with him for two years, and erased her Southern accent. On the other hand, Mom didn’t conceal her use of herbal remedies.  When anyone had a chancy stomach, she would cut a mint leaf into tiny pieces and add it to a teaspoon of sugar for the family member or guest. Mom also used mint—transplanted from Maw’s farm in Virginia—to add a cooling bite to her iced tea.

In time, I learned that mint could not only flavor tea or slow-roasted lamb, but my very life. Before Mom moved into assisted living, I took a few shoots of mint—flourishing years after she had transplanted them from Maw’s land—and planted them in the near-corner of my tiny front yard. Now, when I feel the need of Maw’s strength, I pinch off a leaf and eat it, a spiky green prayer.

Mint holds yet another dimension, I found. Some years ago, aching to include in my life rituals lost or frayed during slavery time, I became initiated as a priestess in the Yoruba religion, a sister tradition to Vodoun. My godmother, who led the ceremony, once explained that taking a mint bath can open one’s life to good energy.

And so, I said nothing to my worried neighbor. I let my mint grow till I had enough to cover the bottom of my old clawfoot tub. I turned on the hot water one night, and, after an amen or two, I climbed in. The mint’s sharp scent left me feeling cleaner in body and spirit.

I admit that my neighbor is right—at this point, I would probably have to rent a backhoe to dig out all that hardy mint. Pink daisies would prettify my little yard, but, given a choice, I would rather have that mess of unruly mint that reaches back to Maw.

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Constance Garcia-Barrio lives in Philadelphia and often writes on aspects of African-American history.