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Penny Royal

Penny Royal

A local woodsman’s wife once commented to the vicar of Holne during a discussion about beverages that her mother used to drink ‘organs tea’. The explanation was; “when tea was sixpence an ounce and coffee three pence an ounce mother used to drink organs tea.” Another woman from Ashburton noted that when she was a child they quite often drank organs broth which presumably was very similar to organs tea. The reason being for this herbal tea or broth was that it was supposed to act as a pick-me-up amongst other things. Back in 1836 the eccentric Dartmoor author Mrs Bray wrote; “for instance, who would ever guess what was meant by organ’s tea, an excellent potation for a cold and here much in request,” p.333.

With herbal teas being very much the vogue these days for their health giving properties nothing apart from the price has changed. But what exactly was ‘organs tea’?

For the answer look no further than the plant Mentha pulegium or Pennyroyal as it’s better universally known. However down Dartymoor Way the common name was/is Organs or Organy hence Organ Tea or Broth. It was once said that; “It should be treason to drink ‘ort but Organs Tea.” These sentiments are still being felt in some quarters today, back in 1993 the famous group Nirvana actually sang about Pennyroyal (Organs) tea as can be seen from the lyrics below. However it is thought that in this context it alludes to the plants ability to cause abortions – more of which later.

Sit and drink Pennyroyal tea

Distil the life that’s inside of me

Sit and drink Pennyroyal tea

I’m anaemic royalty.

Nirvana – 1993.

To make Organs Tea one simply took some Organs leaves, chopped them finely and dumped them in the tea kettle to boil. Incidentally another name for Organs Tea was Tea Kettle Broth, this stemming from the receptacle it was boiled in – the tea kettle. Such a concoction has been know since Anglo Saxon times and the tradition of drinking it has filtered down to modern times. Today you can buy 100g of Pennyroyal (Organs) Tea for around £9.99 should you fancy some. Why would you want to try some and what are its benefits as a herbal tea? It appears that if you name an ailment Organs Tea will cure it, well almost. The famous herbalist Culpepper has this to say about its curative properties:

That penny-royal maketh tough phlegm thin, warmeth the coldness of  any part it is applied to, and digesteth raw or corrupt matter; being boiled and drunk, it removeth the courses, and expelleth the dead child and after birth: being mixed with honey and salt, it voideth phlegm of the lungs. Drunk with wine, it is of singular service to those who are stung of bit by venomous beasts; applied to the nostrils with vinegar, it is very reviving to persons fainting and swooning; being dried and burnt it stregtheneth the gums, and is helpful to those that are troubled with the gout; being applied as a plaster, it taketh away carbuncles and blotches from the face; applied with salt, it helpeth those that are splenetic or liver grown. The decoction doth help the itch, if washed therewith; being put into baths for women to sit therein, it helpeth the swelling and hardness of the mother. The green herb bruised, and put into vinegar, cleaneth ulcers, and taketh away the marks of bruises and blows about the eyes, and discolouring of the face by fire, and the leprosy, being drunk and outwardly applied; boiled in wine, with honey and salt, it helpeth tooth-ach. It helpeth the cold griefs of the joints, taking away the pains and warming the cold parts, being fast bound to the place after bathing or sweating,” pp. 287 – 288.

I think I have just solved the cash crisis within the National Health Service, scrap all other medicines and simply use Organs in one form or another – save a fortune it would. In all reality before the National Health Service it was the poor folk who were cash strapped and could not afford proper medical care. Therefore they tended to rely on simple, cheap herbal cures that with a bit of know-how they could make themselves – Organs Tea being one of them. Ironically today we have seemed to have gone through a reversal of fortunes.

It was not unheard of to hang bunches of dried Organs in people’s bedrooms as the scent was said to induce a healthy and comfortable night’s sleep as well as adding a sweet, minty scent. In this dried form the plant is often used today in pot-pourri mixtures for similar reasons. The other use of Organs was its ability to deter such pests as fleas, lice, ticks and all manner of unspeakable vermin. This would have been another reason for having it in the bedroom. The Latin word ‘pulegium‘ as in ‘Mentha pulegium’ means ‘flea’ thus giving an indication as to what once was thought to be the plants main property.  Today if you Google ‘pennyroyal (Organs) fleas’ you will get numerous webpages explaining how to make natural flea repellent for dogs and cats which come in the form of oils and shampoos. As I work for a veterinary drug manufacturer who make synthetic flea control products I must point out that Organs will only repel any fleas it will not kill any existing infestation. That’s just in case you were thinking of trying some?

Organs was also often hung in churches because in addition to parasites it was also meant to deter rats.

For those into bushcraft this is an ideal plant to sparingly rub into the skin as an insect repellent. I say sparingly because too much can cause dermatitis for those with delicate skins.

As noted above by Culpepper; “it removeth the courses, and expelleth the dead child and after birth,” which basically meant that it could cause abortions. As late as the 1980’s such measures were taken by ladies who had missed their periods and feared telling their folks that they were pregnant. For this very reason it is vital that pregnant females go no where near the stuff as it has been known to work quite effectively.

A culinary use for Organs was to carefully blend it into the Hog’s Pudding mix in order to add that slight minty taste. This may well be why a lesser known name of the plant is – Pudding Grass. In some instances the leaves can also be added to salads and cooked foods.

Botanically speaking Mentha pulegium is a member of the mint family with a strong minty odour similar to spearmint but many will say not as pleasant. The plant can sometimes be found growing wild in moist soils especially found on heaths and damp grasslands especially beside streams and pools. It is a perennial plant that produces light purple to bluish, pin-cushion-like flowers between June and September. For some reason Organs is considered a rarity, especially considering that at one time the crop would be commercially grown in some areas of the country. Today Organs is known to grow wild in just three Devonshire locations one of which being the Shipley Bridge area another one is just outside the National Park at Heathfield (near Bovey Tracy). It was not until 1996 that the plant was discovered at Heathfield in the midst of the Heathfield Industrial Estate. Organs has been classified as a ‘Species of Principle Importance, and comes under schedule 8 of the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, his basically means it is illegal to uproot such plants. In Devonshire Organs found growing on farmland and hedgerows has been classified as a species identified for conservation under the 1998 Devon Bio Diversity Plan and also the UK Priority Bio Diversity Plan

Penny Royal

In the realms of folklore Organs was said to have lined the crib of the baby Jesus, possibly for its supposed ability to deter vermin such as fleas, ticks and lice. Other myths were that sailors would throw bunches of the plant overboard in the hope that it would calm rough seas. Should anyone ever come across a water-logged bee then the easiest way to revive it was to lay it on a bed of Organs.

Penny Royal

Bray, E. Mrs. 1836. A Description of Devonshire Bordering on the Tamar and The Tavy. London: John Murray.

Culpepper, T.  1800. Culpepper’s English Physician and Herbal. London: Champante and Whitrow.


About Tim Sandles

Tim Sandles is the founder of Legendary Dartmoor

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