Saturday, August 24, 2013


Some of the first herbs I ever grew 
I had planted in a strawberry pot 
that I bought at the old Williamsburg Pottery in Lightfoot, Virginia.
The little strawberry pot ( I still have it) held thyme, 
a sprig of rosemary, some basil, oregano,
and an unusual little herb called pennyroyal.

Pennyroyal, mentha pulegium, is a kind of mint,
but one whose essential oils are toxic to humans and animals.
M. G. Kains, in the article 
published in the 1912 American Agriculturist,
says that pennyroyal was a common ingredient in "puddings,"
but was not an herb favored by American and English cooks.
In part because of its pungency.
But I would guess also because of its potential for toxicity.
There have been a number of documented cases in the US 
of deaths caused by taking too much pennyroyal tea or its oil.
Therefore, I was never much interested in even tasting it.

Pennyroyal blossoms arrange themselves artfully on the stalk.
Photo from The Deepest Well blog:

However, decades ago I did rub it on my arms one time as an experiment.
Pennyroyal is supposed to be a good natural mosquito repellant.
Once streaked with pennyroyal juice, 
I don't recall being bothered by any insects
but the mint aroma was a bit too strong and pungent for me.
I don't know about the mosquitoes,
but I did repel myself so I washed it off.

Regardless of its strong odor and questionable safety,
 the ancient Romans weren't so cautious with pennyroyal.
The cookbook the Apicius included recipes
that required a touch of this herb,
including a pennyroyal wine.

I wonder if, given its toxicity, the amounts of pennyroyal were very small,
or if the Romans always served it 
with other foods or drinks that neutralized pennyroyal's toxins.
It's a bit of a  mystery.
I would suggest that pennyroyal remain 
one of those herbs best used as an ornamental.
It makes a lovely groundcover, looking almost like baby tears:


The flower is pretty too:

Which just goes to show,
even bad herbs can be good.

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