Sell your coat and buy Betony

by Danielle Charles

Though little regarded in our day and age, this humble member of the mint family was once so highly esteemed that the chief physician to Emperor Augustus wrote an entire book about it, documenting no less than 47 diseases for which it could cure. The Druids considered it quite sacred and well into the Middle ages it was endowed with supernatural powers, believed to protect one against “wycked spirits”, “monstrous nocturnal visitors and fearful visions and dreams,” and was often carried as an amulet to “sanctify”  the wearer. Old proverbs such as “He has as many virtues as Betony,” or “Sell your coat and buy Betony”  are clear testimony to the great value bestowed on this plant, and rightfully so.

Known as Stachys officinalis in Latin, the common name Betony is thought to derive from the Celtic words bew meaning head and ton meaning good, thus “good for the head” in reference to its ability to cure headaches and other head related ailments.  Woundwort, another common name, testifies to its usefulness as an astringent in treating wounds and injuries. As Nicholas Culpeper, writing in the 17th century, said, “The green herb bruised, or the juice applied to any inward hurt, or outward infected wound in the head or body, will quickly heal and close it up.”  Another common name,  Bishop’s wort, speaks of its favor in Monastic physic gardens throughout the Middle Ages.  Many attest it can still be found growing in churchyards and around the ruins of ancient Monasteries.

The plant is a typical square stemmed mint, native to Central and Southern Europe where it thrives in sunny locations in sandy soil. It is easily grown in most temperate regions and provides beautiful spikes of lavender to magenta labiate flowers in late July and early August that the bees are particularly fond of.  The leaves are a dark green and somewhat crinkled in appearance with rounded, toothed margins. They form a basal clump which closely hugs the ground and then send up 2-3 foot flower stalks with stalked pairs of leaves which are smaller in size.

 This growth pattern of sending up a delicate flower stalk only when the basal leaves are securely established against the Earth, speaks of the medicine betony offers.  It is an herb that helps us to become more grounded when we become “stuck in the ethers”  – it helps to pull one back to earth by strengthening the 3rd chakra (the solar plexus or primitive “gut” brain) and pulling the spiritual and physical selves back into harmony.  I use it for those that tend to be un-grounded, who feel almost disconnected from their bodies and appear scattered and un-present, often oblivious to the needs of their physical bodies (such as remembering to eat).  The lack of groundedness makes them vulnerable to the whims of their overactive minds and the influences of others – perhaps speaking to the  “wycked spirits” and “frightful visions and dreams,” that herbalists of yore used betony for protection against.

Energetically, wood betony is warming and drying. Colonial American herbalist John Sauer rightly wrote that, “there is no illness brought on by cold in which Betony cannot be administered effectively.”    It enhances the circulation and reduces edema,  strengthens underactive digestion with its bitter and aromatic qualities, and aids conditions such as reflux or ulcers with its astringent, wound healing properties. In the lungs,  it is said to strengthen function and promote expectoration, helpful in bronchitis and asthma.  It has mild diuretic properties (Gerard says, “it maketh a man to piss well”) and was traditionally used to break up and expel gravel (urinary stones).   In the reproductive tract, it helps to tone the uterine muscle and relieve painful contractions as well as check excessive bleeding with its astringent action. I find it helpful whenever a lack of vital energy and feebleness of constitution has lead to coldness in the form of deficient function, constriction, atrophy and subsequent pain. As herbalist Jim McDonald says, it both stimulates the circulation of the body’s vital energy, and relaxes the tension or resistance that tends to inhibit or block that circulation.

Betony’s main use is as a nervous system tonic, gently improving and strengthening nervous function throughout the entire body, but particularly in the brain and digestive tract.  It’s ability to enhance circulation in the brain while simultaneously resolving tension may explain why it is so beloved for headaches and migraines, as both conditions are characterized by disruptions in normal blood flow that lead to constriction and pain in the musculature surrounding the skull,  typically exacerbated by (and often caused from)  stress and tension.  Several of Betony’s constituents (namely rosmarinic acid and other caffeic acid derivatives) have also been found to inhibit the synthesis of inflammatory leukotrienes and prostaglandins that are thought to play a role in migraines by disrupting circulation in the brain. By improving cerebral circulation, wood betony can be used similarly to ginkgo and rosemary (or along with them) to enhance focus, improve memory and overall cognitive function and reduce symptoms of vertigo.  By relaxing arterial tension, it can also help with high blood pressure related to stress and nervous tension. It can also be used for neuralgia.

In the digestive tract, betony not only strengthens the function of the digestive organs themselves – but strengthens the function of the nerves that coordinate and control them. Matthew Wood calls wood betony a “solar-plexus tonic” and speaks to its strengthening, toning effects on the solar-plexus nerves (or gut brain) as the reason behind its centering, grounding energy.  The nerves which make up our solar plexus actually send far more messages to the brain than the other way around, which really speaks to the notion of “gut instinct.” When our solar plexus becomes week and deficient, we lost that sense of grounding, basic, instinctual wisdom – and the mind literally becomes disconnected from the body.  As Matthew Wood describes, wood betony allows one to feel, “more alert, more “in the body”, better grounded and physically stronger.”  The spirit is pulled back into harmony with the physical world, the mind with the body.

Wood betony can be used fresh or dried in teas, or can be tinctured in 65-76% alcohol. Maude Grieve states that the fresh leaves are “said to have an intoxicating effect,” though 19th century physician Richard E. Banks attested that “you cannot be drunken that day” when the leaves or powder are consumed.  I must attest that after a cup or two of fresh wood betony tea at the end of a long day, I fell into a deep sleep full of vivid and strange dreams (though pleasant of course, no “monstrous nocturnal visitors”!). The tea has a delightfully mild flavor, somewhat minty with a hint of vanilla. It was used as a substitute for tea by the poorer classes of England, and I can see why. Grieve also mentions that dried herb can be smoked for relieving headache or powdered and used as snuff (though she states this will promote violent sneezing, so I’m not so sure!).  Throughout the Middle Ages it was powdered and mixed with honey, infused into wines, used in cooking or made into ointments for applying to wounds and bruises.  The flowers were made into conserves, as attested by Gerard.

I love it most as tea, and enjoy it combined with other mint family plants such as bee balm, lemon balm, lavender or peppermint. I also like these following combinations based on what I’m using it for:

  • For tension headaches, it goes nicely with other pain relievers such as valerian, Jamaican dogwood, and kava-kava.
  • For enhancing cognitive function, I like it combined with rosemary, hawthorn, ginkgo and gotu kola.
  • For protection from “wycked spirits” (aka mild to moderate “deficient” depression marked by anxiety, scattered thinking and disturbed sleep), it combines very nicely with St. Johnswort, lemon balm,  milky oats and hawthorn.
  • For underactive digestion with gas and bloating, try it combined with mugwort, cardamom,  and peppermint.
  • For reflux, combine with licorice, chamomile and meadowsweet.

But however you use it, I hope you will agree with Culpeper, who says, “it is a very precious herb, that is certain, and very proper to be kept in a man’s house.”  Hopefully, though,  you won’t have to sell your coat for it.