Friday, April 1, 2011

Stachys officinalis - Betony

Stachys officinalis - Betony also called Stachys betonica and Betonica officinale.  Commonly known as Heal-All, Self-Heal, Woundwort, Lamb's Ears, Hedgenettle, Purple Betony, Betaine (fr), Betonie (ger), , Lousewort, Wild Hop, Bishopwort and Wood Betony.  Wood Betony should not be confused with another species, (Pedicularis bracteosa), which has also been called Betony, but is an entirely different species from the Scrophulariaceae family with different properties and applications.

The name is derived from the Greek word stachys, meaning "an ear of grain," and refers to the fact that the inflorescence is often a spike.  The name Betony is alleged to derive from the Celtic word bewton ("good for the head").

Stachys officinalis  is a perennial grassland herb growing to a height of 1 to 2 feet tall. Its leaves are stalked on upright stems, narrowly oval, with a heart-shaped base, and a somewhat wrinkled texture with toothed margins.

As far back as Ancient Egypt, betony was believed to possess magical powers.  Antonius Musa, Chief Physician to Emperor Augustus, claimed it as effective against sorcery and wrote a treatise listing 47 diseases curable by the use of Betony.  The 11th century Anglo Saxon Lacnunga recommends its use to prevent bad dreams, ('frightful nocturnal goblins and terrible sights and dreams'), and was mentioned in the Medicina Britannica of 1666. 

It was grown in physic gardens of apothecaries and monasteries for medicinal purposes and planted in churchyards to prevent activity by evil spirits and ghosts.  It was also worn about the neck as an amulet to drive away devils and despair.  A Welsh charm prescribes it to prevent bad dreams by hanging it around the neck, or drinking the juice before going to bed.  An Italian proverb advices that you should "Sell your coat and buy Betony," while a Spanish saying gives compliment, "He has as many virtues as Betony."  One ancient superstition states that serpents would fight and kill each other if placed within a ring of Betony and that wild beasts, when wounded, would seek it out to cure their injuries. It was also considered a cure for the bites of mad dogs.

Wood Betony has been used for a wide range of ailments for many years in Europe.  Today, it is most often used in the treatment of diarrhea, chronic headache and anxiety.  It may also help in combating lung ailments, such as asthma and bronchitis.
Betony was once the sovereign remedy for all maladies of the head, it is useful in hysteria, palpitations, pain in the head and face, neuralgia and all nervous affections.  The Medicina Britannica says: 'I have known the most obstinate headaches cured by daily breakfasting for a month or six weeks on a decoction of Betony made with new milk and strained.'

John Gerard said that "It maketh a man to pisse well." While Nicholas Culpeper stated that, " preserves the liver and bodies of men from the danger of epidemical deseases, and from witchcraft also" and "...this is a precious herb, well worth keeping in your house" and  Colonial herbalist John Sauer wrote that "there is no illness brought on by cold in which Betony cannot be administered effectively."  Richard E. Banks stated that you should "Eat Betony or the powder thereof and you cannot be drunken that day."  Nice to know. 

Gerard had a lot to say about Betony, that it "preserveth the lives and bodies of men from the danger of epidemical diseases. It helpeth those that loathe and cannot digest their food. It is used either dry or green, either the root, herb or flowers, drunk in broth or meat or made into conserve syrup, water, electuary or powder - as time or season requires."

He also said that the herb cured jaundice, falling sickness, palsy, convulsions, gout, dropsy and head troubles, and that the powder, when mixed with honey, was good for colds, cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, and consumption. Mixed with Pennyroyal it is good for ague, and mixed in wine is good as a vermifuge, it also removes obstructions of the spleen and liver.

The whole herb is used medicinallly, collected from wild plants in July, when at their best, and dried. Modern herbalists prescribe betony to treat anxiety, gallstones, heartburn, high blood pressure, migraine and neuralgia, and to prevent sweating. It can also be used as an ointment for cuts and sores. It has astringent action, and combined with other remedies is used as a tonic in dyspepsia and as an alterative in rheumatism, scrofula and impurities of the blood. The dried herb may also be smoked as tobacco, combined with Eyebright and Coltsfoot, for relieving headache. Betony is said to be nontoxic, though excess consumption may lead to stomach upset.

 CAUTION:  Excessive use causes diarrhea and vomiting.  Should not be taken by PREGNANT women!

Betony is an acceptable substitute for tea, and in this way is extensively used in many countries. It has the taste of tea and all the good qualities of it, without the bad ones. To make Betony tea, pour a pint of boiling water on an ounce of the dried herb.  A wineglassful of this decoction three times a day will guard against nervous headaches.

This herb is best sown on the Winter Solstice, (generally December 21-23), or sow at 41F/5C to germinate in 30-90 days.  This would probably be a good seed to try cold moist stratification. You can sow in a paper towel that has been wet and wrung out, then put in a baggie and into the fridge, checking periodically for germination. Once you see it start to germinate, plant root side down in a tiny hole in the soil (don't touch the root).  Or you can try soaking in cold water in the fridge, with water changed daily, and then plant after two weeks.  Or just plant outside in fall. Transplant to dappled shade and rich, moist soil. Harvest the budding tops in the morning after the dew has dried.  This is a great bee herb! 

Sources include: 

The Backyard Herbalist:
Alchemy Works:

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