Saturday, 4 September 2010

toxic pennies

Somewhere on a secret and rather unexpected site in south-east England, a red data book species is thriving. In the middle of a civic park, Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) is attracting a lot of attention from honey bees, but completely ignored by an unsuspecting public.

It is a highly aromatic plant, with delicate and intricate mauve-blue flowers, and is known to like damp places where the surrounding grass or other vegetation is short. According to the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, it declined in England and Wales by 80 per cent between 1958 and 1998.

This member of the mint family has a rich history: used as a culinary herb by the Roman and to flavour wine by the Greeks, it is also a powerful toxin said to deter fleas (pulex in latin, hence the botanical name).

For hundreds of years women have turned to Pennyroyal tea to end unwanted pregnancies. While there is no medical evidence of its abortive powers, its lethal toxicity to the liver is well documented. A woman died in the US after taking the tea for a number of days in 1995. Yet the tea is still widely available on the internet as a herbal remedy.

After a lot of effort I managed to snap a few photographs of honey bees feasting on pennyroyal nectar. I wonder if their honey will contain any of the plant's toxins?

Nirvana wrote a song called Pennyroyal Tea for their album In Utero in 1993. The meaning of the lyrics is a little hard to fathom but you get a general sense of nihilism.

But back to the endangered status of the plant in England and Wales... According to the UK Biodiversity Action Plan website, pennyroyal has suffered one of the worst declines of any UK plant in the past 50 years. It thrived on lowland commons when grazing kept other vegetation short. Since grazing in these areas has largely disappeared, other plants have shadowed it out. Its stronghold is now in the New Forest (not local parks).

Old folk names for pennyroyal include Run by the Ground, Lurk in the Ditch and Pudding Grass (it was used to season stuffings for hog's puddings). It may be deadly, but it's beautiful.

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