What was once my Thesis project- when I studied with Paul Berger at the North American Institute for Medical Herbalism in 2008.
Family: Lamiaceae, Mint
Latin Names: Stachys officinalis, Betonica officinalis, Stachys betonica
Common names: Wood Betony, Bishopswort, Betony, Common Hedge-Nettle, Purple Betony
Physical description and characteristics
Wood Betony, a perennial member of the Mint family has some of the defining characteristics of the Lamiaceae family, including stiff, square stems up to 1-2 ft tall, and purple/pink tubular, two-lipped flowers whorled about the end of the stem in a spike. The opposite leaves are primarily clustered in a basal rosette of rough, serrated and hairy oblong to heart-shaped leaves. A few stalkless leaves clasp the stem in opposite pairs between the base and the flower spike. (5) Also has a resinous, rank aroma similar to other stachys species.
Habitat and cultivation
Wood Betony can be found growing wild or naturalized in open woodlands, edges of woods, grasslands, under hedges(5,13). In cultivation it prefers partial, dappled shade, and moist, sandy to loamy soil, but thrives on neglect in the garden. (11)
Diterpenoid lactone, betolide, iridoids, tannins, rosmarinic acid, caffeic, betonicin, stachydrine, flavanoids (14) trigonelline (7) Chlorogenic acid, achillein, apigenin, betaine (4) coumarins (20)
Nerve, brain, mucous membranes, gastrointestinal tract, vascular, muscular, uterus, liver/gall bladder
Stimulant, Relaxant, Tonic, Restorative, Alterative, Bitter, carmintive, Astringent, Nervine, Sedative, Expectorant, Diffusive, Emmengouge, Mood elevator/antidepressant, anti-inflammatory, vulnerary, antispasmodic, aromatic, emetic, Sternutatory, anthelmintic
Energetic/spiritual actions properties
I have found Stachys to be neutral tending to warm in thermal nature and drying. Culpepper calls is hot and dry in the 2nd degree. (3, 11, 19) Most other sources state that it is cold and dry, probably due to its bitter properties. Please see below for a futher discussion of this controversy.
Stachys has long been used as an agent of protection from evil ‘spirits’, nightmares and visions, and to repel venomous creatures like snakes. It was planted in churchyards as protection against evil, and the Greeks said, “shields him against visions and dreams.” (5, 12) It is claimed in folklore when surrounded in a ring of wood betony leaves, snakes would fight and kill each other. (5, 20). Erasmus is quoted those who wear it as an amulet would find “good against fearful visions, and driving away devils and despair.” (5,12) Jim McDonald finds Wood Betony to be effective as an amulet for repelling negative energy or evil of a non-supernatural nature, and indicates its use in PTSD by Matt Wood.(11) Hildegard von Bingen states that Wood Betony is useful against the malicious effects of the devil, by crushing the plant and poulticing the chest overnight. (17) She also says that anyone who is troubled by ‘false dreams’ should take Betony leaves to his bed.(17) She also quotes its use for men or women who have been “deceived by some magic art” and find themselves insane with love, they have only to place a leaf in each nostril, under the tounge, in each hand and under each foot. (17) The energy of Wood Betony is very grounding and centering and it is no wonder that people throughout the ages have used it as a protective force to keep someone grounded, “on-earth” and keep their sense of gut instinct strong in order to protect them from “evil” or unsafe situations. It was considered a spiritual herb of the Druids (12)
Matt Wood associates Wood Betony with the solar plexus, and “gut feelings.” (20). The solar plexus is known in many traditions as the seat of many important systems including charka, nervous system, the seat of agni, and a center of lymphatic and immune tissues. Strengthening the center, or the solar plexus, through any of those systems can only be beneficial in improving someone’s health. The gut is inextricably intertwined with our state of health, problems in the gut can manifest as emotional and mental problems, lack of energy or drive, and general weakness or malaise. By using Wood Betony to strengthen the gut one can improve a person’s mental and emotional health, including their boundaries, their sense of self, and their intuition and “gut feelings” that might indicate dangerous people or situations. Though many people have talked about its protective qualities in a supernatural realm, I find that it helps to ground people here on earth, for those stuck in repetitive mental patterns, or in mind/head stuff who need to come down and think from their center, and be in their body.(11) Stachys has a very earthy and physical energy in my experience of it.
Anne McIntyre associates the flower essence of Wood Betony with the head and pineal gland, and strengthens a sense of inner calm, and strengthens the desire for higher principals. She specifically mentions its use in managing the balance between sexual energy and desire and the higher goals of the mind and spirit and useful both for celibacy and in tantric practices. (12)
My experience of the flower essence relates to its very potent effects of grounding, putting someone in their body, centered and steady and very present with the current situation. This is useful both for protection in situations where one must be present, aware and intuitive, and also for bringing presence and grounding to a situation or person who needs that energy.
Traditional Applications and Uses
Wood Betony, seldom mentioned in any great detail by modern herbalists was once known as a panacea, a remedy for all ailments. The Italians are quoted with the saying, “Sell your coat and buy betony.” The Roman Physician, Antonius Musa, listed 47 conditions in which he considered wood betony effective treatment. It seems to have maintained somewhat of a following in Europe and Britain through time, but American herbalists have little to no knowledge of it, until now. There are a few today using wood betony extensively, like Matt Wood and Jim McDonald.
Stachys is worthy of its reputation as a panacea against all mans ills because of its broad actions on so many systems in the body. It can be applied to almost any situation to some benefit. It is most famous for its effects on the digestive system and the head, brain and nervous system, but its effects extend also to the circulation of body fluids, reproductive system, and in wound healing. I’ll explore each of the realms of its traditional use below, starting with the digestive system.
Many herbalists consider Wood Betony to be a general tonic for the digestive system; it is bitter, stimulating, relaxing, and tonifying to all the mucous membranes, but is specifically felt in the digestive tract. It could probably be applied to any disorder of the digestive system, but it is used most often for dyspepsia, indigestion, weak and cold digestion, and catarrh or phlegmatic, damp conditions by stimulating gastric secretions (19). It is often mentioned for gas, colic, and flatulence as an antispasmodic. (3, 14) It is a gentle astringent and beneficial for conditions requiring such action, including diarrhea or bleeding and inflammation in the gut. (8, 12) Wood Betony, though stimulating to the digestive secretions and gently warming a cold or weak gut, is also relaxing and is helpful in addressing tension or congestion in the liver, gall, and spleen leading to jaundice or stuck liver chi.(1, 3, 5, 8, 19) It is also mentioned in the treatment of worms by Culpepper and gypsy herbalist Juliette de Bairacli-Levy. (1,3) Several sources list trigonelline as one constituent of Wood Betony, and McIntyre postulates it might be useful in managing blood sugar. (12)
Nearly every herbal mentions Wood Betony’s use in treating headaches, including from tension, liver chi rising up, migraines and general deficient circulation in the brain. Holmes specifically mentions the use of Wood Betony for headaches with liver yang rising with associated vision disturbances and high blood pressure. (8) Jim McDonald has seen Wood Betony be effective both immediately for acute headaches and migraines and over time for chronic type headaches, and Grieve corroborates this. (5, 11) There are also claims that Wood Betony is of use in head injuries, especially when accompanied by headache, fainting, concussions, and neuralgia.(3, 5, 11, 20) Matt Wood quotes Rychard Banckes from 1525, but Culpepper and Grieves also speak to this use. Matt Wood also uses it as a circulatory stimulant for elders with rosemary and gingko to improve cognition and memory. Because Wood Betony is both stimulant and relaxant, it helps to relax tension in the head, vasculature, and musculature that might cause headaches, but it also stimulates increased circulation, and subsequently oxygenation and nutrition of the brain tissues which might lend credibility to its use in head injuries and chronic deficiencies which could lead to headaches, exhaustion and weakness.
Wood Betony’s other primary use is as a relaxing tonic for the nervous system. Across the board herbalists use Wood Betony for nervous tension and anxiety all the way up to hysterics and depression. Wood Betony is also considered a restorative to the nervous system and nervous tissues, especially with weakness and deficiency. (7,8,11) Culpepper mentions its use for restoring weariness from “travail” or exhaustion from hard work as a powder in honey and vinegar.(3) Stachys is also beneficial in various forms of nervous system disorders including convulsions, palsy paralysis, neuralgias, and sciatica. (1, 5, 8, 12) It seems to be of use in any sort of pain, probably due to its relaxing tonic properties. (8,9,12)
Wood Betony is also useful in women’s reproductive problems. Culpepper primarily mentions it for ‘bringing down the women’s courses,” which I interpret to mean an aid to sluggish menses. He also states it is useful in “falling down of the mother,” I can’t be entirely sure of what he meant by that, but I’m guessing he means prolapse of the uterus, since Wood Betony is a tonic agent. Culpepper also states that it is useful in childbirth to ensure an easy and speedy delivery (3). It seems that Matt Wood has interpreted the use of Wood Betony in reproductive health in a similar fashion, indicating its use in menstrual pain, prolapse, excessive bleeding and weak labor, due to its action in improving ciruculation and muscular tone of the uterus, and its astringent tonic properties. (20) Holmes echoes these indications but adds that it aids in removing qi constraint in the uterus, but claims it is contraindicated in pregnancy due to being a uterine stimulant.(8) Wood also urges caution in pregnancy, but does allow that it might be safe in certain conditions under the guidance of a knowledgable herbalist, and that would be beneficial in labor to strengthen contractions. (20) My experience with Wood Betony is that it definitely releases liver qi that might effect the menses (not specifically uterine qi), and that it is an effective antispasmodic and relaxant for menstrual cramps and emotional tension. I’d probably not recommend Wood Betony in early pregnancy, but possibly in the third trimester as a relaxing nervine and uterine tonic if needed.
Being an astringent, Wood Betony is also useful in addressing wounds and other maladies of the bloody sort. It is mentioned as a poultice for any sort of wound, either fresh or old and festering. (3,5, 8,12,14,19). Its astringency is also useful in the treatment of hemorrhoids, varicosities, bruises or mouth sores. (3,5,8,12,14). Culpepper and Grieves also tell us it is of benefit in the spitting of blood. (3,5) I imagine spitting of blood is either from ulceration in the digestive tract or lungs, and by nature of its astringency it would help address the internal bleeding and help heal up such ulcers. Finally, almost all the sources claimed it to be beneficial in addressing the bites and stings of insects, mad dogs or venomous snakes. (1,3,5)
Considering that Wood Betony is a tonic for the mucous membranes, it shouldn’t be suprising that it is useful in addressing lung conditions. It is a warming stimulating tonic for damp and cold conditions of the lungs, especially with catarrh. (9,11) Sauer uses an infusion in wine to clear phlegm from the chest and lungs. (20) While Culpepper uses a powder mixed in honey for colds and coughs with wheezing or shortness of breath. (3, 5).
Finally Wood Betony is known as an alterative in rheumatism, scrofula, gout and other blood impurities. (5,18) This is probably due to its stimulating and relaxing effects on circulation and stagnancy.
I have only come across one scientific study that mentions Stachys betonica, among other mint family plants. The study was designed to test the antioxidant properties of mint family species. The plants, including stachys were extracted and tested with various methods. In the phosphomolybdenum test, stachys showed the strongest antioxidant activity. In the lipid peroxidation test, stachys and marrubium had the highest inhibition rates at 78%. (10) In terms of real application, this might mean that stachys has some antioxidant properties that are relatively strong within the mint family, but since these extracts and tests are extremely far removed from how the plant is used by herbalists, it is hard to apply the information directly.
Personal Applications/Uses/ Experiences
I have found stachys to be an excellent nervine with restorative and tonic actions for a weak and exhausted nervous system, especially one characterized by cold, frigidity or a ‘frozen” sort of emotional state, from either being to tired to care or feel, or being afraid to feel. It is excellent as a relaxant for any state of emotional or nervous tension, including PMS and tension due to stress. It is also one of the very best remedies for insomnia that I have found. It seems to help release tension and stress that prevents one from getting into a parasympathetic, relaxed state. It helps to address both the tension of the stressed out or excited mind and a tense body. I liken it to curling up with a favorite warm blanket that lends a sense of security and ease.
The other use to which I’ve seen stachys be of particular benefit is in the digestive system. It is a gentle astringent, bitter relaxant tonic for the GI tract. It is healing to ravaged gut tissues by its anti-inflammatory and astringent actions, and it helps to increase secretions in a weak and cold digestive tract. It also seems to help in cases of heartburn, nausea, and gas through its relaxant, antispasmodic properties.
Its diffusive and relaxant properties also make it useful in addressing stuck liver energy or sluggish liver function. In this case I think it works best in combination with other herbs that release liver energy, but this adds to the effect through its strong relaxant activity. It relaxes the constriction in the liver area, while other herbs stimulate the flow of chi, or drain heat from a stuck liver.
Stachys is great during menses for tense, spasmodic cramps with emotional tension and hypersensitivity. It seems to be most effective when combined with blood movers and antispasmodics in formula for this, with herbs to direct it to the reproductive area. I like it with turmeric and wild yam in this case.
I’ve used wood betony flower essence as a very useful tool in the clinic, both for me and clients. The essence feels very grounding and protective, in a warm and steady way. It also seems to help establish and strengthen boundaries. When I use the essence before and after a meeting with a client I feel much more grounded and level headed, and ready to be really present with a client, without taking on the clients emotions and feelings. It allows one to really “be here now” while still being strong in oneself and one’s own energy. I noticed it to be of particular benefit for clients who have a hard time focusing or seem to be “up in the air” with ungrounded vata. It brings them back to their body and present experience, and allows a session to progress in a grounded and real, honest way.
Method of Administration and Medicinal Preparations
Wood Betony can be given in any number of ways. An infusion of the dried herb is very effective, especially for addressing complaints of the mucous membranes, gastrointestinal tract, and reproductive system. I usually use a heaping teaspoon of herb per 8 oz of water, for will often use a good handful of herb for a pint. Ward recommends a full ounce of herb to pint of liquid given in wineglass sized doses, frequently. (18)
A standard tincture of stachys is astringent and bitter and has very effective nervine and sedative properties. The standard is a 1:5 dry plant tincture in 50% alcohol. I’ve taken two droppersful per dose for insomnia and acute stress, but find that even drop doses are effective in their sedative and relaxing effects.
Culpepper favors the use of wood betony powder mixed in honey for ailments of the lungs and respiratory tract, and as an aid to women in bringing on the menses and to aid in childbirth. He states the use of decoction of wine for all troubles of the digestive system, including as a vermifuge and to remove obstructions of the spleen and liver, and address heartburn, gas or colic. Culpepper also commends the use of fresh wood betony leaf poultice or juice in addressing venomous bites or stings, infected wounds, and as a drawing agent for thorns or other objects imbedded in the skin.(3)
Stachys is also well know for its use in herbal brews, beers, and ferments. Its use as a substitute for black tea is mentioned by several authors. (5, 6. 19) Wood Betony is also mentioned as an addition to herbal ferments both by Buhner and by Hatfield. (2, 6) Hatfield has the following formula as a beverage for hot weather and as a spring tonic.
1 oz each Wood Betony, Agrimony, Meadowsweet
1 gallon water
2 lbs sugar
Boil together 15 min, strain, and work with yeast or barm and bottle for later use. (6)
I have found Stachys to work wonderfully alone, as tea, and tincture, but it is also quite effective in formulations. It is commonly paired with black cohosh (cimicifuga racemosa) for its antispasmodic and nervine properties . Lyle and Jim McDonald both use it this way, Lyle combines Stachys and Cimicifuga for phrenitis (9) and McDonald uses the combination for migraine headaches. (11)
Hoffman and Tierra both suggest combining stachys with scuttelaria for nervous headache or anxiety.(7, 15)
Matt Wood combines it with rosemary and ginkgo for elderly folks as a general tonic to increase circulation to the head (20.)
My personal favorite pairs with stachys are stachys and hypericum for neuralgia, sluggish liver function, and as a nervine pair for anxiety and depression. It also seems a likely pair for those with fear arising from ‘evil’ energies or who need protection and strengthening of their psychic boundaries. Both herbs were traditionally used as protective charms against evil. (5, 20) I also employ stachys and foeniculum as a tonic for the stomach, especially with gas/colic.
My very favorite formula including stachys is with scuttelaria, centella and rosa. This is a supreme cooling nervine formula for burnt out nervous exhaustion with heat rising into headaches, bursts of anger and heartburn. It is excellent for anxiety, depression, fear and tension.
Stachys also works very well in formulas for the digestive system, specifically in gut healing teas due to its astringency and tonifying properties, and its bitterness. It helps with inflammation, bleeding, and digestive weakness from cold and lack of digestive secretion. Use it in combination with calendula, althea, plantain, chamomile etc.
In liver formulas to address stuck liver chi or other liver congestion it works well with other diffusive chi releasing herbs like citrus peel, peony, rose, lavender, rosemary and dandelion.
Controversies and contradictions
For an herb with so many varied uses, actions and applications, and such a long history, one wonders WHY on earth has it fallen from common use by the majority of herbalists? It seems as if Wood Betony was used most often by European herbalists, and I suspect that the use in America died out just because it wasn’t a plant that grew in America, unless planted and naturalized by European immigrants. Sauer, the German herbalist from the colonial period used and wrote about Wood Betony, and one Physiomedicalist, Lyle, mentions it. But there seems to be a lack of widespread knowledge of the herb among Eclectics and the new western herbal tradition of today. But there were plenty of other medicine and food plants imported by Europeans which are with us today and are used frequently, why was such a useful plant lost to common knowledge? I’m not sure I have a good answer, and other herbalists who use it, like Jim McDonald and Matt Wood don’t seem to either.
There seems to be quite a bit of disagreement about the thermal energetics of Wood Betony among traditional herbalists across the board. My own personal assessment of the herb feels slightly warming. It certainly isn’t HOT, by any means, but the mild diaphoretic properties suggest warmth. It certainly is classified as a bitter, and most bitters are cold in nature, but not all of them. Angelica, calamus and chamomile for example are warming and aromatic bitters. I feel Wood Betony falls into this category. I also consider most plants in the mint family to be slightly to strongly warming, and stachys is a member of this family as well. Jim McDonalad, Christopher Sauer, and Nicolas Culpepper seem to find it warming as well. While other texts classify it as cool.
After talking with Jim McDonald and other herbalists with experience with Wood Betony, we concluded that the herb is probably warming in the first degree and feels cooling to people with very hot constitutions or very hot conditions, but the nature of the herb is neutral to warm, without being overly heating.
It is no wonder that the herbalists of old considered Wood Betony a panacea. It seems to be applicable in so many varied conditions and systems, because of its broad spectrum of properties. It is both stimulant and relaxant, tonic, and one of the few warming bitter herbs we have. It is a bit deceptive because it is seemingly mild and gentle, and one could easily mistake it for a not very important or useful remedy, but upon looking closer it is those gentle mild properities that make it so beneficial in so many conditions without being overly insistent in its action.