Sorry I’ve been absent in writing for so long. I’ve been focusing on my other project and working and there are only so many hours in the day, it seems. However, yesterday’s SCOTUS ruling in Burwell V. Hobby Lobby has reignited my passion in all things sexual health related so here we are.
If you’ve been an avid reader of this blog, you know that I already covered Pennyroyal about a year ago. But like any good long term project, new information is always coming to light. I’ve uncovered a few more interesting facts so I thought I’d simply rewrite the post rather than amending the old and expecting anyone to see it buried in the archives of the internet.
As we learned before, Pennyroyal is actually the common name of two different herbs: Mentha pulegium (the European variety) and Hedeoma pulegioides (the American variety). Although very similar in appearance and both members of the mint family, the European Pennyroyal is a perennial herb while the American type is annual. M. pulegium can be distinguished by the flowers which contain four stamens, while H. pulegioides has only two (Hylton and Kowalchik 1987).
When we talk about the use of Pennyroyal in antiquity this is the herb in question, since the American variety wasn’t “discovered” (and I use that term loosely) until colonization by the Europeans. And we do talk about this herb in antiquity.
In 421 B.C.E Aristophanes wrote in his play “Peace”:
Hermes: If that be so, receive Opora here for a wife; take her to the country, live with her, and grow fine grapes together.
Trygaeus to Opora: Come, my dear one, come and accept my kisses.
Trygaeus to Hermes: Tell me, Hermes, my master, do you think it would hurt me to love her a little, after so long an abstinence?
Hermes: No, not if you swallow a portion of penny-royal afterwards.
Basically, Trygaeus is given this woman as a new female companion and he immediately asks his master what would happen if he gets her pregnant. The answer is to simply apply pennyroyal, rinse, repeat. Problem solved!
In 411 B.C.E. Aristophanes wrote Lysistrata. In it, the women of Athens and the surrounding areas are feeling the effects of the Peloponnesian War. Specifically, the towns were almost devoid of able-bodied men, as they were all conscripted. The women devise a plan to end the war by withholding sex from their lovers until a treaty is reached. As the different women gather (sometimes translated to be prostitutes from these various lands), Aristophanes contrasts a noticeably pregnant women with a slim Boeotian woman “trimmed with spruce and pennyroyal.” This not only references her lack of pregnancy, but also the fashionable grooming of the pubic hair noted in that region – penny royals were slang for pubic hair.
In the common era, the gynecological text De Mulierum Affectibus (On Diseases of Women) recommends:
to stir into honey pennyroyal, myrrhm frankincense, and gall of pig and ox
to make a suppository to bring down the menses. It also recommended “pennyroyal, made smooth” and mixed with honey to expel afterbirth (because it would cause the uterus to contract).
Later, Dioscorides wrote in De Materia Medica (written between 50 -70 C.E.) that:
Glechium (Pennyroyal)… taken as a drink expels the menstrual flow and afterbirth and is an abortifacient
And Culpepper stated in his herbal:
Being boiled and drank, it provokes women’s courses, and expels the dead child and after-birth, and stays the disposition to vomit, being taken in water and vinegar mingled together. And being mingled with honey and salt, it voids phlegm out of the lungs, and purges melancholy by the stool (Culpepper 1653)
However, as attitudes regarding abortifacients changed, so too did the reported use of the plant. By the time Mrs. Grieve wrote her herbal in 1931 all references to the abortive properties of pennyroyal were removed. Instead, curiously, she only references its use as a culinary herb in stuffings and as a remedy for headaches and “affections of the joints.” This is significant because she does not even suggest it is an herb to be avoided in pregnancy.
This “New World” herb has been used by the native people of North America for a variety of reasons. Lumbee healers used the herb to treat headaches and dizziness as well as remedy to purify the blood (Boughman and Oxendine 2003) and the Chickasaw healers would “soak the plant in water and place it on the forehead to relieve itchy and watery eyes” (Hylton and Kowalchik 1987). However the most common application of American Pennyroyal was as a remedy for the common cold and flu.
Brewed as a tea, the infusion of Pennyroyal was given as a treatment by the Catawbas, the Lumbee, the Mohegans, and the Aztec, as well as mentioned by other tribal healers (Hylton and Kowalchik 1987, Boughman and Oxendine 2003). Remedies included drinking two cups of the tea while soaking the feet in a hot water bath while wrapped in layers of blankets to stimulate sweat. This would help the fever to break (Hylton and Kowalchik 1987). The Lumbee would drink the tea for its expectorant properties which helped in cases of colds and whooping cough (Boughman and Oxendine 2003). As one 19th century folk healer wrote:
The hot tea of the plant is a very efficient remedy for all cramps and pains and colic. It is an active sweat producer… good for colds and cramping… I prefer the tea from all the plant over and above all other forms and modes of preparation (Hylton and Kowalchik 1987)
Of course, like its European cousin, American Pennyroyal contains pulegone which was used as way to cause abortion. Native people and settlers alike were reported to use the herb to as an abortifacient although sometimes with disastrous results such as hemorrhaging (Boughman and Oxendine 2003). Unregulated dosage of the herb can cause damage to the liver (Riddle 1997).
This native folk knowledge still persists in modern applications in the Mexican-American community. The herb poleo chino (Hedeoma pulegioides) is recommended as a good remedy for bringing on delayed menstruation. The stems, leaves, and flowers are simmered in an infusion that is sipped three or four times a day over the course of a few days (Davidow 1999).
And of course you can’t bring up the modern uses of pennyroyal without bringing up Nirvana.