Peppermint: The Medicinal, Culinary, Aromatic Herb
Peppermint Jim Crosby
Two years ago, a Michigan mint farmer came to southern Arizona on a whim and stayed to plant roots here—mint roots, that is. Jim Crosby, aka “Peppermint Jim,” a fourth-generation mint farmer, found a receptive climate; both for growing mint and marketing the essential oil he distills from the leaves.
A passionate proselytizer of the benefits of mint and free enterprise, Crosby is driven to establish a community of growers in the Sonoran Desert region to supply his distillery. Informed by mythic memories of his great-grandfather Crosby establishing the family mint farm in southeastern Michigan a century ago, this 21st-century Crosby has added controlling the production and distribution of the essential oils through his proprietary knowledge and artesian distillery.
“I see large and small farmers planting and harvesting Peppermint Jim mint stock,” Crosby smiles, the refreshing aroma of mint in the air around him, “We have a high standard of providing pure, undiluted oil and products that deliver essential oils, fragrance, salves and culinary herbs.”
Crosby describes his economic plan of growers supplying the expanding markets for Peppermint Jim products. “Growers committing fields to our rootstock becomes more economically viable for everyone up and down the line because of the quality and desirability of our products.”
Mints are versatile, easy-to-grow herbs with a colorful mythological, medicinal and culinary history. Mint was known to the ancients for its many pleasant uses. The Greeks revered it as a symbol of hospitality. The Roman’s image is the nymph Minthe, transformed into a plant to be trodden on under hoof and heel by a jealous Persephone for her husband Pluto’s dalliances. Sympathetic to her plight, Pluto gave mint the cool, refreshing fragrance that fills the air when the leaves are crushed.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw mint described first as a medicinal remedy, then an ingredient in food, drink and confections. The herb best known for its aroma and refreshing qualities is a flavor everyone recognizes in toothpaste, breath fresheners, cough drops and chewing gum. Mint teas, salves and sauces are also very common.
There are thousands of known varieties of mint. All feature square stems, opposing leaf arrangement and flowers in tall, terminal heads of spiked or whorled arrangements. The flowers bloom purple, pink or white. Mint leaves are usually creased, serrated, round to oval and pointed at the tip.
Peppermint Jim cultivates native spearmint and black Mitchem peppermint; both true medicinal mints. The plant is propagated through rootstock, not seed, because the flowers are sterile. Crosby brought rootstock from the Michigan farm to Arizona in 2011 and is now getting four annual harvests from planted fields.
Harvesting occurs when the plants have flowered. Cut and left to dry one to three days, like hay, the stalks are scooped, chopped and blown into a wagon, one acre at a time. Later, steam distills the mint oil from the leaves. An acre can give up about 400 pounds of plant matter that in good harvests, yields about three gallons of oil.
In its pure distilled form, peppermint and spearmint oil is a golden yellow to clear substance that is liquid at room temperature. The oil is lighter than water, and is collected by lifting it from the top of vats of drainage during the distillation process.
Peppermint plus spearmint yields menthol. The black Mitchem plant Peppermint Jim propagates has the highest menthol content and optimum oil yield. The native spearmint menthol has local anesthetic and counterirritant qualities, and is widely used to relieve minor throat irritation.
At Peppermint Jim, the oils are offered in several mediums; as a lip balm, mister and a lotion, in combination with lemongrass. Medicinal recommendations include treatments for acne, arthritis, fever, insect bites, nausea and itching. The oils contain antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties. A drop added to cleaning solutions, detergents and air vents provides a clean scent, attacks fungi and is effective as an insecticide. Both peppermint and spearmint can be used as flavoring in food and drink. A mojito mix and mint sauce have also been concocted.
Crosby is personally committed to community building around the herb. The economic model is growing crops, distilling oils, packaging and marketing products. Where the original 20 mint farms around St Johns, Michigan, sold their oil harvest to corporate buyers, Peppermint Jim controls the plant from root to oil. He currently has seven acres under cultivation near the Tucson Mountains and is considering more acreage in the region.
“Peppermint Jim is active in farmers’ markets because that’s where people go who want fresh produce, free range beef, honey and other home grown, homemade items.” Crosby says, “We support people being able to have healthy choices available, and farmers’ markets are great places for that. Peppermint Jim being present at farmers’ markets supports all growers and vendors being successful.”
Growth in the two years since Peppermint Jim appeared on the Arizona scene has been phenomenal. Crosby notes, “We’ve been very careful in expanding, introducing products and establishing relationships with brick-and-mortar businesses up and down the Sun Corridor and all the way from Flagstaff to Wilcox. In Tucson, Peppermint Jim can be found at the New Life Health Center, Maynard’s Market and Kitchen and The Shoppe at Civano B&B.”
Crosby’s personification of “Peppermint Jim” is a mission he’s taken on with zeal. His passion is present in every interaction. Just look with your nose for peppermint in your next foray to the region’s farmers markets’ and you’ll find Peppermint Jim.
Dale Bruder is a regular contributor to Natural Awakenings Tucson. See ad on page 14.