A Cup of Pennyroyal Tea -The Toast

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It’s an unassuming flower, the pennyroyal, with its small, pointed, lavender petals cupped by deep green leaves. Pennyroyal flowers grow in kusudama-like clusters that thread a single, delicate stem. A cousin to mint, pennyroyal smells good (if a bit overwhelming) and can help keep fleas and mosquitoes at bay. Ingested as a tea or an oil, pennyroyal can hurry along an annoyingly late period. And in high enough doses, the story goes, pennyroyal can allow a pregnant woman to expel the contents of her uterus, inducing an abortion.

Women have used pennyroyal, or other herbal abortifacients such as rue or tansy, to exert some control over their reproductive systems for centuries. There is evidence that women in ancient Greece prepared pennyroyal concoctions as a part of religious rituals, perhaps to prevent unwanted pregnancies.[1] Before safe surgical abortion methods were invented, abortifacients like pennyroyal were one of the few options women had to prevent childbirth after conception had occurred. In times and places where surgical abortions were unavailable, illegal, or taboo, these herbs provided an appealing alternative to other back-alley methods. After all, pennyroyal is just a flower—a spice, a perfume, a decorative bouquet, a cup of tea: how dangerous can it be?

Pennyroyal may be prettier than a coathanger, but its side effects are no less brutal. Women who ingested pennyroyal oil in doses high enough to cause an abortion have experienced liver damage, kidney damage, massive multiple organ failure, excessive bleeding, and death. In 1868, physician W.A. Wilcox wrote in to The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal to describe a patient who became comatose after taking just a spoonful of pennyroyal oil when her period was a few days late.[2] Her symptoms, he said, initially made it appear as if she had overdosed on opium, her pupils fixed and dilated. The patient eventually recovered. An early twentieth-century court case concerned the death of a less fortunate woman who had taken pennyroyal pills to induce a miscarriage. Here, the term “pennyroyal pill” might have referred to a concoction of abortifacients that included pennyroyal as well a smattering of who-knows-what other herbs and chemicals. But no matter its contents, the “pennyroyal pill” led to the woman’s death from pyemia: a sepsis caused by pus-emitting bacteria in the blood.[3]

Cases of pennyroyal toxicity from over a hundred years ago are tragic, but perhaps understandable: in an era when abortion techniques included inserting woodchips into the womb or throwing a woman repeatedly off of a bucking horse, pennyroyal might be the least-terrible of a set of deeply terrifying options. But lest these cases of pennyroyal poisoning be treated as misery porn in period clothing, as history lessons that allow us in the modern world to pat ourselves on our post-Germ Theory backs, it is worth noting that women have died of pennyroyal poisoning as recently as the late 1970s. According to a CDC Morbidity and Mortality Report from 1978, three women facing pregnancy scares were hospitalized for hepatoxicity caused by pennyroyal.[4] Two women survived, suffering tingling fingers, nausea, dizziness, and strange burning sensations—but seemingly no permanent damage. The third woman, however, experienced nosebleeds, hemorrhages, and an enlarged liver. She died after six days in the hospital. During the autopsy, the doctors found 4,000 milliliters of fluid, or roughly 135 fluid ounces, in her peritoneal cavity. The woman was eighteen years old—almost a girl, really—and she died with an amount of fluid equivalent to one gallon of milk, 5.6 Starbuck’s Venti beverages, or fifty menstrual cycles in her belly.

Though most people today have probably heard about pennyroyal through Nirvana’s final, storied hit—a single called “Pennyroyal Tea” that was recalled after Kurt Cobain’s suicide for being just a bit too morbid—I first came to learn about pennyroyal through a rather less likely source: the late nineteenth-century local color fiction of Sarah Orne Jewett. Jewett’s literary domain was rural New England, and the struggling, economically hobbled communities found there. As post-Civil War America federalized, citified, and industrialized, the small shipping towns on the Maine coast found themselves in an unstoppable decline. If these small villages couldn’t be saved through social or economic reform, some glimmer of New England rural life could at least be preserved in texts like Jewett’s. While a number of writers participated in local color fiction of this kind—the telling of small stories, in small places, using small literary forms such as short stories and sketches—Sarah Orne Jewett was the master of the form. Her protégé, Willa Cather, named Jewett’s best-known work The Country of the Pointed Firs one of the great American pieces of fiction, right alongside The Scarlet Letter and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.[5]

There is much sadness in Jewett’s fiction, which might be expected from an author who traced the slow disappearance of once-flourishing communities, but there is no graphic violence. Instead the worst injuries take place in the margins of her texts—present in the corner of a reader’s eye, perhaps, but never placed directly on the page. Female pain is located in the ruined foundations of a home where a jilted woman isolated herself as a hermit, or in the account of a long-dead sister who had once been a young schoolgirl in a pink dress and curls: beautiful landscapes and pleasant memories that throw into relief the sheer trauma of living.

“Where the Pennyroyal Grew” is an important sketch in Jewett’s masterpiece, The Country of the Pointed Firs. In it, the unnamed narrator (who, like Jewett, is a Boston-based author who finds inspiration for her writing amongst rural Mainers) learns an astonishing truth from her elderly landlady, an accomplished herbalist named Mrs. Todd. Together they collect the most perfect samples of pennyroyal from a gorgeous, verdant patch. It is amongst this garden of abortive herbs that Mrs. Todd reveals her deepest secret: she had given her heart to another man before she married her late husband. The scent of pennyroyal reminds her both of her kind if unloved husband who died at sea, and of “the other one”—an illicit romance whose passion might be long dead, but which still survives in a memory sparked by a pungent abortifacient.

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Literary critics have puzzled over the pennyroyal scene for decades. Elizabeth Ammons highlights the scene’s emphasis on female power and control, and Ron Welburn suspects that Mrs. Todd is referring quite explicitly to an unwanted pregnancy that was averted with the help of the pennyroyal patch.[6] Both these critics, and those who have come later, have been attentive to the significance of herbal remedies on female bodies and how these herbs serve as a poignant medium through which women might be able to discuss the pains of menstruation and miscarriage, pregnancy and abortion, without ever saying a word.[7] It is only after this scene, after all, that the unnamed narrator and Mrs. Todd share their most intimate feelings with one another. “I felt that we were friends now since she had brought me to this place,” the narrator says. But Mrs. Todd develops another connection, too, as she collides with a centuries-long history of women who lived and died before her: “It is not often given in a noisy world to come to the places of great grief and silence. An absolute, archaic grief possessed this country-woman; she seemed like a renewal of some historic soul, with her sorrows and the remoteness of a daily life busied with rustic simplicities and the scents of primeval herbs.” Archaic, historic, primeval: pennyroyal condenses time itself, distilling generations of female hurts into a single perfumed moment.

Jewett knew her medicine. She was the daughter of a physician, Theodore Herman Jewett, who for a time served as a Professor of Obstetrics at the University of Maine. Jewett also knew her plants. She was an accomplished gardener, and she wrote about her gardens often—and with the detail of a technician, not a dilettante. Jewett thus had special access to two kinds of discourse about women’s bodies: the modern world of medicine, dominated by men, and a longer tradition of home-garden remedies produced by and for women. In some of Jewett’s texts, these two languages compete with one another—in The Country of the Pointed Firs, for example, Mrs. Todd’s herbal remedies are both economic and ideological rivals to the modern medicines administered by the local, male physician. But in other texts, the two worlds merge in surprising ways. Jewett’s first novel, A Country Doctor, narrates the story of a young girl who grows up to be an accomplished, formally trained medical physician in her hometown, in a narrative not dissimilar from Jewett’s own experiences growing up to be a professional writer of Maine’s landscapes, folkways, and women. In A Country Doctor, the medical profession stands not in opposition to, but rather as a figure for, a distinctively feminine practice of self-actualization.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about pennyroyal and its contradictory implications for women’s health. It is a symbol of uniquely feminine knowledge, an herbal remedy whispered from mother to daughter, from sister to panicked sister. Pennyroyal is subversive, a means of taking control over one’s own reproductive system. Pennyroyal exists outside the masculine mainstream, in garden patches and teacups, and there is a power in that.

But while pennyroyal has certainly saved women, it has killed women too. It is, absolutely and irrevocably, a signal of an antifeminist past that constantly threatens to break into the present. Mrs. Todd’s ability to channel the historic grief of women via pennyroyal might be poetic, but the idea of being forced into such pennyroyal sympathy now, in the twenty-first century, is grotesque. Caitlin Moran was right when she invoked pennyroyal as the boogeyman of reproductive rights in her piece excoriating Spain’s anti-choice legislation in 2013: “Women have abortions. They always have, and they always will,” Moran wrote. “The only question is: in safe, legal clinics – or back to pennyroyal, hot water and desperate prayers?”[8]

But for Jewett, pennyroyal comes to stand in for something else as well: the act of female artistic creation that deliberately evades the metaphorics of childbirth. Plants and children are conflated more often than you might realize. Five-year-olds attend kindergarten, a “children’s garden.” Baby dolls are plucked from cabbage patches. Anne Geddes . . . is a thing. This is why gardens seem so innocent: we have to care for them in the way we care for our children or tend to our pets. If a cat can be a fur-baby, then certainly our plants can be our “babies” too, albeit rather leafier ones. I know I fuss over my spider plants, name my succulents, and converse with my spathiphyllum (whose name, as it happens, is Baby Spathy). But the eternal, niggling irony of the innocent child is that it takes a sinful act to make one. This is why gardens are sexy, too: they are spaces of uncontrollable procreation, the evidence of which bursts through the cracks in our sidewalks, casually ignores the borders of our garden fences, and swells the fruits we pluck from the tree. No wonder Linnaeus saw in plants a marriage bed, and went on to develop a naming system based on the model of marital procreation. No wonder Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie witnessed in the fertilization of the pear tree an “ecstatic shiver,” a delightful froth. “So this was a marriage!” Janie thinks. What goes unsaid but nevertheless hovers palpably over the scene: “So this is where babies come from!”

But what if a garden could provide us with the sex and not its childlike aftermath? What if a plant could provide all the shiver and froth, and none of the babies to deal with later? Sarah Orne Jewett wrote such a garden and found such a plant in “Where the Pennyroyal Grew.” In generating stories by and about women that arise from sprigs of pennyroyal, Jewett allows her reader to envision the act of artmaking as one that does not resemble a pregnancy but rather its termination. Jewett’s stories grew in the pennyroyal patch; she most certainly did not give birth to them.

In the nineteenth century, a genre known as the floral dictionary skyrocketed in popularity. Gorgeously illustrated, these dictionaries assigned dozens of plants, humble and exotic, a corresponding emotion or meaning: bouquets became conversations, and plants became legible, easily decoded texts. According to these dictionaries, you can tell someone “You are perfect” by giving them a pineapple, and you can command someone to “Render me justice” by directing them to a chestnut tree. Pennyroyal said something, too: “flee away.” There’s a pun in this; pennyroyal prevented insect bites and so is a “flea away” flower. But I prefer to think of it in terms of its literal, non-jokey definition, one that again reveals pennyroyal’s internal contradictions. Because I find myself fleeing from pennyroyal, too. I think about what pennyroyal can do to a woman’s body, and I take comfort in the advances of modern medicine, fleeing from the nineteenth century right into the twenty-first. And I think about how those safe spaces for women to choose not to procreate are being eroded by male politicians, and I find myself fleeing straight back into the comforting, intimate yet desolate, words of Sarah Orne Jewett and her stories redolent of pennyroyal. The scent is something akin to peppermint tea, laced with turpentine.


[1] See “Persephone’s Seeds: Abortifacients and Contraceptives in Ancient Greek Medicine and Their Recent Scientific Appraisal,” by Sarah E. Nelson. Pharmacy in History, Vol. 51, No. 2 (2009), pp. 57-69.

[2] “Poisoning by Pennyroyal.” The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, Volume 78 (1868), p. 394.

[3] “Pyemia, ‘Pennyoyral Pills’ and Evidence in Abortion Case.” Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 53, No. 11 (1909), p. 891.

[4] “Fatality and Illness Associated with Consumption of Pennyroyal Oil—Colorado.” Center for Disease Control Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Vol. 27, No. 51 (December 22, 1978), pp. 511-513.

[5] Willa Cather, “Preface” to The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Stories, 1925.

[6] Elizabeth Ammons, “Finding Form: Narrative Geography and The Country of the Pointed Firs,” in Conflicting Stories: American Women Writers at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, 1992. Ron Welburn, “The Braided Rug, Pennyroyal, and the Pathos of Almira Todd: A Cultural Reading of The Country of the Pointed Firs.” Journal of American Culture, Vol. 17, No. 4, pp. 73-78.

[7] Gregg Camfield, for example, writes of Jewett’s botanical language as a particularly fruitful medium for female gossip. “Jewett’s Country of the Pointed Firs as Gossip Manual.” Studies in American Humor, Vol. 9 (2002), pp. 39-53.

[8] Caitlin Moran, “Why is Abortion Under Threat Again?”The Times Magazine (January 14, 2014).

Kaye Wierzbicki studies and writes about American literature, American gardens, and the intersections between them. She currently lives on the East Coast, but is looking forward to experiencing Minnesota niceness when she relocates to the Twin Cities this summer.

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