While walking through an open field in Deep Creek in late February, I was pleasantly surprised to see about two dozen wild pennyroyal plants in bloom. This plant is found throughout the Florida peninsula and is almost endemic (found in Florida alone), except for a few counties in southern Georgia and some northern islands of the Bahamas.
The scientific name for wild pennyroyal is Piloblephis rigida. It is rather a strange name because when translated to English it means rigid hairy eyelid. The name comes from the Greek words pilo (hairy) and blephis (eyelid), probably referring to the tiny soft hairs that coat the sepals and rigida (rigid), which refers to its stiff branches.
Wild pennyroyal is a spreading perennial herb found in well-drained sandy soils with direct sunlight. The multibranched stems form what look like mounds that vary in height from 8 to 20 inches and are about twice as wide as they are high. The hairy stems and branches are densely covered with small needle-like leaves that measure about 3/8-inch in length. When these leaves are broken or crushed, they emit a delightful peppermint smell. No surprise: This plant belongs to the mint family (Lamiaceae).
Cone-like spikes, about 1 to 2 inches long form at the end of each stem and branch tip. These spikes are covered with clusters of small flowers, each about a quarter-inch wide. The color of the flowers vary from lavender to light pink. The flowers have two lips, with the lower lip having three lobes with dark purple spots. Each small flower is subtended by four small green sepals. Although the flowers bloom year round, they are more abundant in late winter and spring. Many insects, including bees, wasps and butterflies enjoy the nectar from these flowers.
Indians in Florida drank hot tea made from the plant leaves to treat a number of medical problems including colds and fever. Placed in a dog’s bed, a small bag of leaves reportedly helped drive away fleas.
Another name for wild pennyroyal is false pennyroyal. The reason is that this plant is not a true pennyroyal. The true pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) is a European species. It has been introduced into the United States and can currently be found in the western states of California and Oregon and the eastern states of Maryland and New Jersey. If you Google pennyroyal, you will get hits for the real thing. So, if you want to do a search for the wild pennyroyal that is found in Florida, be sure to use the scientific name (Piloblephis rigida).