Wood betony (Stachys officinalis) has become one of the core herbs of my naturopathic practice, and it is a herb that is not that well known in modern times despite offering so much assistance for modern health problems. It is ancient, humble and multi-faceted. There has been limited research performed on this plant, but there is quite the depository of traditional use recounts. I’m on an unofficial quest to bring this amazing plant back into common knowledge, as it is easy to grow, sustainable to harvest and can cover the many healing bases that more exotic and expensive plants are currently being utilized for. I call this herb the Swiss army knife of my dispensary, as it can be used in so many situations.
Wood Betony’s Medicinal Properties
Names: Bishopswort, Betony, Wild hop, Purple betony, Chastra (Arab).
Botanical name: Originally; Betonica officinalis (Linnaeus), currently; Stachys officinalis.
Tissue States: Constriction (Tension), Atrophy, Depression.
Quality: Light, dry, penetrating and slightly warming.
Taste: Sweet, smooth, pungent.
Iris signs: Radii solaris, especially in headzone. Dilation in bowel area. Nerve arcs/cramp rings. Engaged nerve wreath.
Part Used: Dried aerial parts.
- Circulatory stimulant
- Emetic (in large doses)
- Migraines and headaches
- Poor concentration
- IBS (diarrhea, indigestion, flatulence, colic, constipation)
A Herb with Ancient Accolades
“Few, if any, herbal plants have been more praised for their supposed curative virtues than the Wood Betony” – Fernie, 1895
There is an old proverb in Italian ‘Wende la tunica en compra la Bettonia’ translating to ‘sell your coat and buy betony’, and when speaking of a most excellent person, it is said ‘they have as many virtues as Betony’ The physician to the Roman Emperor Augustus (63BC – 14AD) wrote an entire book about Wood betony, describing the 47 diseases it could cure.
Over in the Celtic and British Isles, it was considered one of the Druid’s seven sacred plants. Being used in Midsummer ceremonies to clear “wycked spirits” and interestingly, it was given to couples who were having issues, as it was seen to help them find common ground.
In my research I happened upon this most incredible love poem for wood betony by the Alemannic monk, church gardener, and poet, Walahfrid Strabo in his book Hortulus (“little garden”):
In the mountains and woods, in the meadows and depths of the valleys—
Almost everywhere, far and wide, grows the precious abundance
Of betony. Yet I have it too in my garden, and there
It learns a softer way of life in the tended soil.
So great is the honor this genus has won for its name
That if my Muse wished to add to it she would find herself
Defeated at last, overwhelmed; and soon she would see
She could add nothing more to the value it has already.
Perhaps you pick it to use it green, perhaps
To dry and store away for the sluggish winter.
Do you like to drink it from cloudy goblets?
Or do you Prefer to enjoy what it gives after long and careful Refining?
Whatever your fancy, the wonderful powers
Which this herb has will supply all your needs.
Migraines, Headaches, and Vertigo
The name “betony” is thought to derive from the Celtic words bew meaning head and ton meaning good, thus “good for the head”. Wood betony contains a number of constituents (rosmarinic acid and caffeic acid) that have been found to interrupt the inflammatory cascade of prostaglandins and leukotrienes that are known to play a central role in migraines.
It is understood traditionally to improve the circulation to the brain, whilst also relaxing the musculoskeletal system. Herbs that have this ability to relax tissues when there is excess tension and stimulate blood flow are referred to as ‘circulatory stimulants’. Therefore is very useful if the neck and upper thoracic tension are contributing factors to one’s headaches or if one is prone hypertension. It is particularly useful if headaches and migraines are triggered by stress and tension. It is used in some cases of vertigo, most likely due to its affinity for the balancing nervous system input.
Gut and Brain
There are more nerves in the gut than there are in the brain, and this is known as “the enteric nervous system”. We don’t need science to tell us that there is a significant connection between emotions and our digestion – we have plenty of sayings to describe this link: ’I’ve got a gut feeling about this’, ‘it makes me sick to my stomach to think about it’ and ‘my stomach is doing flips/has butterflies’.
Some people hold onto their stress in their digestive systems more than others. They are the classic irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) people. This may include feeling nauseous, experiencing constipation, diarrhea, flatulence, indigestion, and spasms. Wood betony strengthens the overall function of the digestive system via balancing the function of the nerves that control and coordinate it.
Wood betony has been described by many herbalists as a “solar plexus tonic”. The solar plexus is the energy center in the gut area. In Indian systems of medicine, when the solar plexus is not aligned, one feels ungrounded, not in touch with their own instincts and can suffer poor self-esteem. As Matthew Wood describes, wood betony allows one to feel, “more alert, more in the body, better grounded and physically stronger”.
Chronic Stress and Energy
Because wood betony has such a broad action on the entire nervous system, it is valuable whenever stress, tension or anxiety are playing a triggering role. There are many plants that also are wonderful for this purpose, but wood betony is in a class of its own when it comes to taste and tolerability. Herbalist Jim McDonald explains this quality beautifully by saying “wood betony stimulates the circulation of the body’s vital energy, whilst also relaxing the tension and resistance that tends to block that energy”.
If you are feeling tense, anxious, not able to digest your food properly or have a poor appetite and experiencing headaches and migraines, welcome this herb into your teacup.
Wood betony has been recorded as a ‘woundwort’ (meaning a herb used in the treatment of wounds) in many herbals. Our modern-day understanding of its key constituents has been able to expand upon this use. Its tannins are mildly astringent, thus helps to seal and close minor wounds, sore, ulcers, varicose veins and haemorrhoids. Its affinity with balancing circulation makes it useful for bruises, sprains, and strains.
Wood betony’s volatile composition is bacteriostatic, which means it prevents many strains of bacteria from being able to replicate. And it is actively antifungal against Aspergillus niger and Candida albicans (Lazaervic, 2013).
Potential use in PCOS and other menstrual irregularities
A closely related Iranian species of Wood betony, Stachys lavandulifolia, has been clinically trialed in the treatment of polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS). Currently, most medication options have side effects. An extract of wood betony was compared with Medroxyprogesterone acetate (MPA) in the management of abnormal uterine bleeding (AUB) due to PCOS and was shown to be equally effective (Jalilian, Modarresi, Rezaie, Ghaderi, & Bozorgmanesh, 2013). This is a very interesting finding and novel use for this very common and easily accessible plant.
Useful Botanical Combinations
For a soothing digestive tea, I combine it with tulsi, angelica root, ginger, and licorice.
For tension headaches, it’s fabulous with Jamaican dogwood, scullcap, kava, and rosemary.
For slow digestion (heartburn, bloating and gas), combine with marshmallow, chamomile, fennel, and meadowsweet.
For stress, nervous tension and/or mood swings, blend with milky oats or withania, mugwort and St Joan’s wort for a tried and true combination.
Maude Grieve notes that it was traditionally combined with coltsfoot and eyebright and smoked to relieve headaches.
How to Take It
It is very pleasant as a tea on its own or in combination. 2 teaspoons per cup of boiled water, steeped for 10 minutes, and drink 3 of these a day. I make a 1:5 tincture in 45% alcohol using dried flowering plant or use a fresh plant tincture from Tasmania, I tend to dose them is a very similar way – for acute digestive symptoms, headache or migraine, 2ml taken up to 6 times a day. As a general tonic and strengthener, 2ml three times a day.
Wood Betony Safety
There is another plant in North West of America also called Wood betony, but this is in a different family all together (Pedicularis canadensis) so make sure you use Stachys officinalis. There is conflicting advice when it comes to pregnancy and lactation. So to be on the safe side, I would advise to avoid it unless you are under the care of a qualified herbalist or naturopath who can advice what is best for you. Additionally, large doses can cause digestive upset.
Wood Betony in the Garden
Betony does very well in rich, humus reminiscent of its native habitat, but it will accept normal garden soil readily. The soil should be enriched and well-watered to keep the soil evenly moist. It prefers a well-drained position and will respond poorly to humidity, damp and tropical conditions. Sow in the early spring. Standard greenhouse culture or direct seed. Barely cover seed, tamp well and keep evenly moist until germination, which occurs in 1 to 3 weeks. Space 2 feet apart. To harvest, cut the stems above the roots, tie together about six and hang up to dry in a cool, dry area. The dried leaves can be crumbled and kept in an airtight jar.
A Modern Herbal by Maude Grieve. (1996) (New edition edition). Tiger Books.
Fernie, W. T. (2007). Herbal Simples Approved for Modern Uses of Cure. Unknown.
Jalilian, N., Modarresi, M., Rezaie, M., Ghaderi, L., & Bozorgmanesh, M. (2013). Phytotherapeutic Management of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome: Role of Aerial Parts of Wood Betony (Stachys lavandulifolia). Phytotherapy Research, 27(11), 1708–1713. https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.4921
Lazarević, J. S., Ðorđević, A. S., Kitić, D. V., Zlatković, B. K., & Stojanović, G. S. (2013). Chemical Composition and Antimicrobial Activity of the Essential Oil of Stachys officinalis (L.)
Trevis. (Lamiaceae). Chemistry & Biodiversity, 10(7), 1335–1349. https://doi.org/10.1002/cbdv.201200332
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Rabbani, M., Sajjadi, S. E., & Jalali, A. (2005). Hydroalcohol extract and fractions of Stachys lavandulifolia vahl: effects on spontaneous motor activity and elevated plus-maze behaviour.
Phytotherapy Research, 19(10), 854–858. https://doi.org/10.1002/ptr.1701
Rabbani, M., Sajjadi, S. E., & Zarei, H. R. (2003). Anxiolytic effects of Stachys lavandulifolia Vahl on the elevated plus-maze model of anxiety in mice. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 89(2–3), 271–276.
Strabo, W. (1982). Hortulus: [s.n.].
Wood Betony. | Henriette’s Herbal Homepage. (n.d.). Retrieved March 1, 2018, from https://www.henriettes-herb.com/eclectic/hool/wood-betony.html
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Wood, M. (2011). The Earthwise Herbal, Volume I: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. North Atlantic Books.
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