This entry has been updated. Please see the new information on Pennyroyal located here.
“Sit and drink Pennyroyal Tea
Distill the life that’s inside of me
Sit and drink Pennyroyal Tea
I’m anemic royalty”
Was Kurt Cobain the poet of our generation? Nah, probably not. But what he did do was incite an entirely new generation to google (or, you know whatever teenagers did back in 1993 to get information… I think it might have been AOL chatrooms) this controversial and much maligned herb.
Pennyroyal has an interesting dual history. It actually is a name for two separate plants, from two different genera, that grew on two different continents. But, oddly enough, the name AND the folk remedies are the same for both. Generally, when one speaks of Pennyroyal it is the European variety that is being discussed, Mentha pulegium.
European Pennyroyal was used for a variety of purposes and was known (and still is!) to be an effective insect repellant when the leaves were rubbed on the skin. In fact, Pliny the Elder noted in his writings that fleas seemed to detest the herb and the taxonomist Carl Linneaus derived it’s latin name from the word pulex which means flea. But of course the most recognized and noted use of Pennyroyal is the one it is still most known for: abortion.
As Culpepper stated in his herbal of 1653:
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.
Sure, you would also take a tea of Pennyroyal if you had a fever or the common cold. But nothing was more effective at “provoking women’s courses” even if they were a few months late. Interestingly, by the time the Victorian herbals were being written all references to this herb as an abortifacient were removed, no doubt too unfathomable for a woman’s delicate sensibilities of the time (well, and also illegal as of 1803). What is interesting to me, though, is that there is not even a warning that this remedy should not be used if the woman was pregnant and intended to stay that way. This leads me to think that they knowledge was still widely known and simply not written down due to law and morality.
Over in the new world the American Pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegioides) functioned in almost the exact same way. Still belonging to the mint family the crushed leaves functioned to keep fleas, ticks, and other annoying insects at bay. Many different Native American tribes used the tea to sooth the common cold and aid an upset stomach. But, again, it was the abortive properties that this plant was known for.
It is important to note that using either of the Pennyroyals for any sort of medicinal purpose is a terribly bad idea. (Disclaimer: I am really only speaking about European Pennyroyal here for certain, but everything else about American Pennyroyal is so similar to its European counterpart I am not adverse to telling you not to use either). It contains a pretty powerful toxin – pulegone. Why do you think it causes fetus death? That really wouldn’t happen if it was super good for you. It has caused the death of more than one teenage girl looking to terminate her pregnancy who got the concentration of the dosage wrong. It causes systematic organ failure. So give it the respect it deserves.