Mentha pulegium, commonly (European) pennyroyal, also called squaw mint, mosquito plant and pudding grass, is a species of flowering plant in the family Lamiaceae native to Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East. Crushed pennyroyal leaves exhibit a very strong fragrance similar to spearmint. Pennyroyal is a traditional culinary herb, folk remedy, and abortifacient. The essential oil of pennyroyal is used in aromatherapy, and is also high in pulegone, a highly toxic volatile organic compound affecting liver and uterine function.
Culinary and medicinal uses
Pennyroyal was commonly used as a cooking herb by the Greeks and Romans. The ancient Greeks often flavored their wine with pennyroyal. A large number of the recipes in the Roman cookbook of Apicius call for the use of pennyroyal, often along with such herbs as lovage, oregano and coriander. Although it was commonly used for cooking in the Middle Ages, it gradually fell out of use as a culinary herb and is seldom used as such today. The fresh or dried leaves of the plant were used to flavor pudding.
Even though pennyroyal oil is extremely poisonous, people have relied on the fresh and dried herb for centuries. Early settlers in colonial Virginia used dried pennyroyal to eradicate pests. Pennyroyal was such a popular herb that the Royal Society published an article on its use against rattlesnakes in the first volume of its Philosophical Transactions in 1665.
Pennyroyal is used to make herbal teas, which, although not proven to be dangerous to healthy adults in small doses, is not recommended, due to its known toxicity to the liver. Consumption can be fatal to infants and children. It has been traditionally employed as an emmenagogue (menstrual flow stimulant) or as an abortifacient. Pennyroyal is also used to settle an upset stomach and to relieve flatulence. The fresh or dried leaves of pennyroyal have also been used when treating colds, influenza, abdominal cramps, and to induce sweating, as well as in the treatment of diseases such as smallpox and tuberculosis, and in promoting latent menstruation. Pennyroyal leaves, both fresh and dried, are especially noted for repelling insects. However, when treating infestations such as fleas, using the plant's essential oil should be avoided due to its toxicity to both humans and animals, even at extremely low levels.
Pennyroyal essential oil should never be taken internally because it is highly toxic; even in small doses, consumption of the oil can result in death. The metabolite menthofuran is thought to be the major toxic agent. Complications have been reported from attempts to use the oil for self-induced abortion. For example, in 1978, an 18-year-old pregnant woman from Denver, Colorado, died within one week after consuming one ounce of concentrated Pennyroyal oil in an attempt to self-induce abortion. There are numerous studies that show the toxicity of pennyroyal oil to both humans and animals.
Since the U.S. Congress passed the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act in October 1994 all manufactured forms of pennyroyal in the United States have carried a warning label against its use by pregnant women, but pennyroyal is not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Attributed and possible contributions to death
- 1897- A 23-year-old British woman died eight days after swallowing a tablespoon of pennyroyal in order to induce menstruation.
- circa 1909- The Supreme Court of Indiana convicted a Mr. Carter of prescribing and administering pennyroyal pills to a pregnant woman who died two months after her miscarriage.
- August 1912- A 16-year-old girl from Maryland consumed 36 pennyroyal pills to induce abortion. An autopsy revealed that the herbal abortion was only partially successful.
- November 1978- An 18-year-old pregnant woman from Denver, Colorado, died after ingesting one ounce of concentrated pennyroyal oil in an effort to abort her fetus. Prior to her death, the victim had reported using the dried leaves of the plant to induce menstruation with no ill effects.
- July 1994- Kris Humphrey, a 24-year-old woman, died in California. At the time of her death, Humphrey unknowingly had an ectopic pregnancy, and drank an herbal tea made with pennyroyal extract. According to one news report, there is disagreement over whether Humphrey died as a result of the ectopic pregnancy or from pennyroyal poisoning.
- Hedeoma pulegioides (American Pennyroyal, a distantly related species)
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