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Botanical: Stachys Betonica (BENTH.), Betonica officinalis (LINN.)
Family N.O. Labiatae
---Habitat---It is a pretty woodland plant, met with frequently throughout England, but by no means common in Scotland. Though generally growing in woods and copses, it is occasionally to be found in more open situations, and amongst the tangled growths on heaths and moors.
There are five species of Stachys growing wild in this country - the once much-valued Betony (S. Betonica); the Marsh Stachys, or Clown's Woundwort (S. palustris); the true Woundwort (S. Germanica), a doubtful native, occurring occasionally on limestone soils in England, but very common on the Continent, where the dense covering of its leaves was at one time in rustic surgery employed in the place of lint for dressing wounds, the low-creeping Field Stachys (S. arvensis); and the Hedge Stachys, or Hedge Woundwort (S. sylvatica), perhaps the commonest of them all.
---History---The Wood Betony (S. Betonica according to present-day nomenclature, though nemed Betonica officinalis, by Linnaeus) was held in high repute not only in the Middle Ages, but also by the Greeks who extolled its qualities. An old Italian proverb, ' Sell your coat and buy Betony, ' and 'He has as many virtues as Betony,' a saying of the Spaniards, show what value was placed on its remedial properties. Antonius Musa, chief physician to the Emperor Augustus, wrote a long treatise, showing it was a certain cure for no less than fortyseven diseases.
Throughout the centuries, faith in its virtues as a panacea for all ills was thoroughly ingrained in the popular estimation. It was largely cultivated in the physic gardens, both of the apothecaries and the monasteries, and may still be found growing about the sites of these ancient buildings. Robert Turner, a physician writing in the latter half of the seventeenth century, recounts nearly thirty complaints for which Betony was considered efficacious, and adds, 'I shall conclude with the words I have found in an old manuscript under the virtues of it: "More than all this have been proved of Betony." '
- In addition to its medicinal virtues, Betony was endowed with power against evil spirits. On this account, it was carefully planted in churchyards and hung about the neck as an amulet or charm, sanctifying, as Erasmus tells us, 'those that carried it about them,' and being also 'good against fearful visions' and an efficacious means of 'driving away devils and despair.' An old writer, Apelius, says:
- 'It is good whether for the man's soul or for his body; it shields him against visions and dreams, and the wort is very wholesome, and thus thou shalt gather it, in the month of August without the use of iron; and when thou hast gathered it, shake the mold till nought of it cleave thereon, and then dry it in the shade very thoroughly, and with its root altogether reduce it to dust: then use it and take of it when thou needst.'
Many extravagant superstitions grew up round Betony, one, of very ancient date, was that serpents would fight and kill each other if placed within a ring composed of it; and others declared that even wild beasts recognized its efficacy and used it if wounded, and that stags, if wounded with a dart, would search out Betony, and, eating it, be cured.
---Description---It comes up year after year from a thickish, woody root. The stems rise to a height of from 1 to 2 feet, and are slender, square and furrowed. They bear at wide intervals a few pairs of oblong, stalkless leaves, 2 to 3 inches long, and about 3/4 to 1 inch broad, with roughly indented margins in other plants of this group, the pairs of leaves arise on alternate sides of the stem. The majority of the leaves, however, spring from the root and these are larger, on long stalks and of a drawn-out, heart shape. All the leaves are rough to the touch and are also fringed with short, fine hairs; their whole surface is dotted with glands containing a bitter, aromatic oil.
At the top of the stem are the two-lipped flowers of a very rich purplish-red, arranged in dense rings or whorls, which together form short spikes. Then there is a break and a piece of bare stem, with two or four oblong, stalkless leaves and then more flowers, the whole forming what is termed an interrupted spike, a characteristic peculiarity by which Wood Betony is known from all other labiate flowers. The cup or calyx of each flower is crowned by five sharp points, each representing a sepal. The corolla is a long tube ending in two lips, the upper lip slightly arched, the lower one flat, of three equal lobes. The four stamens lie in two pairs within the arch of the upper lip, one pair longer than the other, and shed their pollen on to the back of bee visitors who come to drink the honey in the tube, and thus unconsciously effect the fertilization of the next flower they visit, by carrying to it this pollen that has been dusted upon them. After fertilization, four brown, smooth three-cornered nutlets are developed. The flowers are in bloom during July and August.
The common name of this plant is said by Pliny to have been first Vettonica, from the Vettones a people of Spain, but modern authors resolve the word into the primitive or Celtic form of bew (a head) and ton (good), it being good for complaints in the head. It has sometimes, also, been called Bishopswort, the reason for which is not evident. The name of the genus, Stachys, is a Greek word, signifying a spike, from the mode of flowering.
---Part Used Medicinally---The whole herb, collected from wild plants in July, when at their best, and dried.
Collect only on a fine day, in the morning, but after the dew has been dried by the sun, Cut off the stems shortly above the root (which is no longer used, as in olden days); strip off all discoloured or insect-eaten leaves, and as the stems are fairly firm, tie them up in bunches of about six stalks together, spread out fanwise, so that the air can penetrate to them all, and hang them over strings to dry, either in half-shade, in the open air, or in the drying room. The bunches should be of uniform sizes to facilitate packing when dry. If dried out-of-doors, take in before there is any risk of becoming damp from dew or showers. For drying indoors, a warm, sunny attic or loft may be employed, the window being left open by day, so that there is a current of air, and the moist, hot air may escape: the door may also be left open. The temperature should be from 70 to 100 degrees F. Failing sun any ordinary shed, fitted with racks and shelves, can be used as a drying room, provided it is ventilated near the roof and has a warm current of air, caused by an ordinary coke or anthracite stove. The important point in drying is rapidity and the avoidance of steaming: the quicker the process of drying, the more even the colour obtained, making the product more saleable.
All dried leaves and herbs should be packed away at once in wooden boxes or tins in a dry place, as otherwise they re-absorb about 12 per cent. of moisture from the air, and are liable to become mouldy. The herbs should not be pressed down heavily when packing, or they will tend to crumble.
---Medicinal Action and Uses---Betony was once the sovereign remedy for all maladies of the head, and its properties as a nervine and tonic are still acknowledged, though it is more frequently employed in combination with other nervines than alone. It is useful in hysteria, palpitations pain in the head and face, neuralgia and all nervous affections. In the Medicina Britannica (1666) we read: '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.'
As an aromatic, it has also astringent and alterative 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 weak infusion forms a very acceptable substitute for tea, and in this way is extensively used in many localities. It has somewhat 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 dayproves a benefit against languid nervous headaches.
The dried herb may also be smoked as tobacco, combined with Eyebright and Coltsfoot, for relieving headache.
A pinch of the powdered herb will provoke violent sneezing. The dried leaves formed an ingredient in Rowley's British Herb Snuff, which was at one time quite famous for headaches.
The fresh leaves are said to have an intoxicating effect. They have been used to dye wool a fine yellow.
- Gerard tells us, among other uses, that Betony,
- '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 or herb - or the flowers, drunk in broth or meat or made into conserve syrup, water, electuary or powder - as everyone may best frame themselves, or as time or season requires.'
- He proceeds to say that the herb cures the jaundice, falling sickness, palsy, convulsions, gout, dropsy and head troubles, and that 'the powder mixed with honey is no less available for all sorts of colds or cough, wheezing, of shortness of breath and consumption,' also that 'the decoction made with mead and Pennyroyal is good for putrid agues,' and made in wine is good as a vermifuge, 'and also removes obstructions of the spleen and liver.' Again,
- 'the decoction with wine gargled in the mouth easeth the toothache.... It is a cure for the bites of mad dogs.... A dram of the powder taken with a little honey in some vinegar is good for refreshing those that are wearied by travel. It stayeth bleeding at the nose and mouth, and helpeth those that spit blood, and is good for those that have a rupture and are bruised. The green herb bruised, or the juice, applied to any inward hurt, or outward wound in body or head will quickly heal and close it up. It will draw forth any broken bone or splinter, thorn or other thing gotten into the flesh, also healeth old sores or ulcers and boils. The root is displeasing both to taste and stomach, whereas the leaves and flowers by their sweet and spicy taste, comfort both in meat and medicine.'
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Bear in mind "A Modern Herbal" was written with the conventional wisdom of the early 1900's. This should be taken into account as some of the information may now be considered inaccurate, or not in accordance with modern medicine.
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