Pennyroyal, Mentha pulegium

I haven’t been well this summer. An unbearable situation at work went on for far too long, and pretty much brought me to my knees. I can’t remember ever having felt so exhausted, literally dragging myself out of bed every morning. Ryan was a big help in the garden, and is the only reason we have made as much progress as we have. We’re stalled at the moment, waiting for the sheds to be delivered, but the plants in the finished half are all doing very well.

The situation at work has now been (largely) resolved, and I suppose I am recovering – the exhaustion is dissipating, although in some ways I feel worse now that I’m not running on 100% stress hormones.

When I don’t have enough energy to go around, it’s the garden that suffers. Life’s essentials (shopping, cooking, just enough cleaning to keep the place sanitary) use up what little there is. It’s unfortunate that happens, as I love gardening and I know (from experience, and from the science) how therapeutic it is.

So, now that I am a little more lively, I am resolved to spend more time in the garden. This morning I have repotted a few things – my ailing kaffir lime (to be honest I thought it was dead), a madeira vine, the rhubarb we bought yesterday at the knockdown price of £3 (I should record, for posterity, that it’s Timperly Early – it’s bound to lose its label eventually). I’ve pulled a few weeds, and fed the compost heap.

My gardening life has been so disjointed over the last few years that there are plants in the garden with which I am not very familiar, and it seems like a good point to do something about that.

The picture at the top of this post is my new Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium). I bought it a couple of weeks ago, as one of four perennial herbs reduced to 50p each in the garden centre’s end-of-season sale. According to the label, it can be used sparingly to flavour soups and stews, but shouldn’t be consumed by ladies who are pregnant. We don’t have any pregnant ladies in this house, though, so I don’t need to worry about that.

So, what else can we learn about pennyroyal? It’s not a species I’ve grown before, dubious about its edibility. Wikipedia tells me it is also known as squaw mint, mosquito plant and pudding grass. The first name is likely to be offensive, the second sounds distinctly uninviting, but pudding grass sounds fun, so let’s go with that.

It goes on to say that pennyroyal was used as a culinary herb by the Greeks and Romans, and (fresh or dried) was used to flavour puddings in the Middle Ages. It says that pennyroyal oil is ‘extremely’ toxic, and that although consumption of pennyroyal tea is “not proven to be dangerous to healthy adults in small doses”, it is not recommended. So maybe we won’t put it in the teapot then.

PFAF is less damning, giving it an edibility rating of 3 and merely advising the avoidance of large doses.

Cornucopia II makes no reference to toxicity, but mentions using pennyroyal to season “meat sauces, stews, game, frittatas….” It says that, in England, “a famous stuffing was once made of pennyroyal, pepper, and honey”, and that this is a favourite herb in western Georgia.

So… why the difference? Determining the edibility of a particular plant can be tricky. Opinions differ, advice changes over time, and of course people differ in their responses to different chemicals. It’s a matter of getting the latest possible information from reputable sources, and then trying a small amount of something new to see what the results are.

I would trust PFAF over Wikipedia, because Wikipedia is crowd-sourced and a secondary source of information. PFAF is compiled by people who love edible plants, with notations from a large reference library. Cornucopia II is a widely respected reference work. The garden centre wouldn’t sell plants labelled as edible if they weren’t – they’d be opening themselves up to a lawsuit if there were any problems.

Jekka McVicar’s New Book of Herbs suggests using it sparingly in cooking, and avoiding the plant if you’re pregnant or have kidney problems. She knows what she’s talking about, so we’ll go with that. She also says you can rub the herb onto surfaces as an ant repellent.

I am not currently in need of an ant repellent, but next time I’m outside I’ll nibble a leaf and see what I think of the flavour – described as a ‘coarser’ peppermint. If all else fails, it has pretty flowers that are popular with bees.

Update: I stumbled across a related article (for the second time, actually), which discusses the fact that the Italian culinary herb metuccia is not pennyroyal, despite what the internet may tell you. If you have a hankering for carciofi alla romana, then Calamintha nepeta is what you need 🙂

Update 2: Coincidentally, Justin the toxicologist covered the same topic this week, and his article is well worth a read: Pennyroyal: Nature’s Herb or Abortifacient?.

Do you grow pennyroyal? What do you use it for?