Natural Treatment for Congestion: Pennyroyal Tea

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Natural Decongestant Pennyroyal Tea

With fall coming to an end, I’ve been trying to gather in everything I can before the frosts kill it. I will miss the freedom of heading out just before dinner and gathering fresh herbs for tea and cooking. I was so intent on the parsley and basil that I almost forgot one of my favorite herbs until just last night.

Pennyroyal Herb

I have been growing European pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) because it is the easiest to get from a plant nursery. American pennyroyal (Hedeoma pulegoides) is said to be much more minty, even though it isn’t really in the mint family, but it is a bit more finicky and difficult to grow. I tried sowing seeds and plan to try again next year in an area of our property with a bit better soil.

Part of the reason I forgot the pennyroyal is that it is a fairly low growing plant. It’s a bit of a creeper and makes a great ground cover. I love pennyroyal and use it year round, mainly in tea, but occasionally in something like a fruit salad. The minty flavor is a bit different than peppermint or spearmint, there is a hint of earthiness that I find mellows the brightness.

Misunderstandings About Pennyroyal

Pennyroyal is also one of the herbs people ask me the most about. It is the subject of one of the misunderstandings I lump into “herban” myth.

The plant was widely accepted and used in early medicine. It was a staple in the US pharmacopeia between 1831 and 1931 for colds, flu, digestive problems, and delayed menses. In the early 1900s chemists began distilling oils from this and other plants. It was incorrectly assumed that if the plant was harmless, so too were the plant oils. This, unfortunately, couldn’t be further from the truth. These essential oils are the product of isolating just one part of the plant and then concentrating it. Essential oils are incredibly potent and in the case of pennyroyal, they can be deadly.

Now, there are two ways that pennyroyal joined the “herban” myth vanguard:

  1. Because pennyroyal encourages blood flow to the pelvis, it has been used in the past to encourage menstruation. It became known that women had used high doses of pennyroyal (the plant) to aid in ending their pregnancies. So in the early 1970s, two geniuses decided to drink the essential oil to achieve that end. Let me say this – essential oil of pennyroyal is NOT the same as using the whole plant in a formulation. The women who drank pennyroyal essential oil died.
  2. After we determined that pennyroyal essential oil was dangerous (as little as 2 teaspoons can cause convulsions), we pointed at the plant and thought, “Oh no! There is a dangerous essential oil inside that plant. That must mean that the plant is dangerous to consume.” Yes, essential oil is one of the constituents of the plant, but that does not mean that the plant is deadly. There is arsenic in apple seeds but we don’t declare apples to be deadly. It would take upwards of 75 gallons of pennyroyal tea to accumulate the amount of essential oil necessary to kill someone, while it would be easy to get to that same dose by drinking a small bottle from your favorite oil provider.

Natural Decongestant Tea

Pennyroyal is entirely safe for anyone to eat or make into tea. If you are pregnant, it is often suggested that you limit or eliminate your consumption of it. Consuming the essential oil is dangerous for anyone, but there is a big difference between that concentrated phytochemical and the wholeness of the plant.

I harvested a good supply of pennyroyal for the winter. I love it in tea when I am suffering with congestion, it is simply the best!

Decongestion Pennyroyal Tea

Add your tea to a tea cup infuser or tea ball and pour 8 ounces of boiling water over it. If you’re feeling adventurous add a pinch of cayenne. Cover and allow to steep for 10-12 minutes. Add honey if you wish and enjoy!


About Dawn Combs

Dawn is a wife, mother, farmer, author, ethnobotanist, professional speaker, and educator. She has over 20 years of ethnobotanical experience, is a certified herbalist, and has a B.A. in Botany and Humanities/Classics. Dawn is co-owner of Mockingbird Meadows Farm. Her books include Conceiving Healthy Babies and Heal Local.

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  1. Lorelei Connors says

    Thank you so much for clearing that up… i have believed for years that pennyroyal was dangerous, and was surprised to see the headline on this article… i am also a certified herbalist, but did not know this.

    • Dawn says

      Either or both. If you have nasal congestion I would suggest you do a steam to warm and loosen the nasal passages. You could use pennyroyal in that steam or a handful of thyme, sage or oregano.