Pennyroyal: The Potentially Deadly Mint

Pennyroyal is a mint variety that is native to Europe, parts of Asia as well as to the Middle East. It was introduced to places in Africa along with Australia and New Zealand. Pennyroyal’s use dates back to the Ancient Greeks and the Romans after them. The herb was used for its medicinal value but it was an important culinary herb as well. The Greeks used pennyroyal primarily to flavor wines. Roman gourmet Apicius listed fresh and dried pennyroyal alongside other major culinary herbs such as oregano and lovage. In addition to using it to flavor wines, Apicius also used the herb in sauces including a sauce to be served with game.

Pliny the Elder was another historical figure who documented the herb’s benefits. He listed it as a flea repellant. According to some historians, the herb’s presence around the world can be accounted for by the Roman Empire to a large extent.

It was well known to these early civilizations for its use in improving menstrual flow and for causing abortions. Large doses of pennyroyal are needed to affect a fetus. Those large doses can cause serious kidney or liver damage and death both to the mother and to her unborn child.

Pennyroyal continued to be a popular herb for cooking in the Middle Ages but its popularity as a flavoring would decline after this period. Many people still kept it in gardens for its medicinal value.

In the 17th century, Nicholas Culpeper recommended pennyroyal for treating various gastrointestinal ailments.

Historians believe that early European colonists introduced pennyroyal to the North American continent. The Native Americans adopted it for its medicinal value.

Pennyroyal flavor profile

Pennyroyal is a particularly pungent mint. Its pungency is partly why its use is largely restricted to medicinal applications. Many people find the taste unpleasant while others describe it as a more pungent version of spearmint.

Health benefits of pennyroyal

Despite its risks, pennyroyal still has certain important health benefits that result from the fact that it contains:

  • Menthol: Menthol is a compound found in different mint varieties and which provides the distinctive cooling effect.
  • Rosmarinic acid: Rosmarinic acid is a polyphenol found in pennyroyal that has antioxidant benefits.

Pennyroyal may be effective for treating or preventing these conditions:

  • Menstrual difficulties: Pennyroyal stimulates the muscles of the uterus, to improve menstruation.
  • Gastrointestinal issues: Pennyroyal is effective for treating conditions like constipation, hemorrhoids and flatulence.
  • Respiratory problems: Pennyroyal is useful for treating bronchitis and sinusitis as well as respiratory infections.

Common uses

In the modern era, pennyroyal is rarely consumed; instead, many experts recommend that it be used only as a topical insect repellent. That said, most of the danger seems to lie with consuming the essential oil rather than the herb. Herbalists say that 2 ounces of fresh pennyroyal steeped in 3 cups of hot water can make a tea that is safe to consume providing you do not exceed 2 cups of it per day. The leaves are edible both in raw and cooked preparations. They can even be added to salads to enhance flavor. You can use pennyroyal to flavor the icings for a cake as well as in chimichurri and some stews. It is strongly recommended that pregnant women not consume this herb in any form.

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