Wood Betony (Stachys officinalis)

Family: Lamiaceae

Part used: aerial parts

The genus contains over 270 species and is divided into sections. Recently Stachys officinalis (L.) Trevis. was placed in section Betonica of subgenus Betonica with Stachys alopecuros. The genus has been revised more than once and Stachys betonica L. and Betonica officinalis are synonyms for Stachys officinalis. Stachys officinalis is a hardy perennial and found throughout Europe on open grassland and woodland.

Erect, straight, unbranched square stems (15-40 cm) bear narrow stem leaves. The stalked basal leaves are oval and bluntly toothed with a heart-shaped base. Dense, terminal, cylindrical spikes of reddish-purple magenta flowers occur in summer. The cylindrical flowerheads distinguish it from woundworts. The flowers are tubular with five lobes, the lower three lobes are bent back, and there are axillary flowers with a characteristic pair of leafy bracts below each whorl of flowers. The fruit is composed of four small nutlets hidden in the persistent, smooth five-toothed calyx.

Other species used

The woundworts such as hedge woundwort Stachys sylvatica are traditionally used for healing wounds but cannot be substituted for Stachys officinalis. Stachys sylvatica grows in more shady areas and spreads from a creeping rhizome. Erect hairy stems (to 90 cm) bear opposite, nettle-shaped leaves. The flower is claret red with white markings. It has a characteristic unpleasant smell. Marsh woundwort Stachys palustris grows in ditches, river margins and wet land and spreads from a creeping rhizome. It is distinguishable from Stachys officinalis as the flower heads are less solid and the pinkish-purple flowers have white markings. It readily hybridizes with Stachys sylvatica to form large clumps of Stachys x ambigua.

Quality

Other Stachys are used as medicinal plants and it is possible that plant material collected in the wild is not all Stachys officinalis.

 

In The Honest Herbal: A Sensible Guide to the Use of Herbs and Related Remedies the pharmacognocist Dr Varro Tyler writes: ‘Betony or wood betony is one of those medicinal plants once believed to be good for practically everything whose use in folk medicine decreased over the years until it is now thought to be of relatively little value’. He indicates the plant’s past reputation by citing Grieve on two old sayings: the Italian ‘sell your coat and buy betony’ and the Spanish ‘he has as many virtues as betony’ (Bauhin states that both of these are Italian sayings). He sees no need to list the 47 diseases it was thought to cure in Roman times because ‘any one you can think of was probably included’. This former panacea, he concludes, is effective in treating diarrhoea and irritations of mucous membranes on account of its tannin content, and the flavonoids have been reported from Russia to lower blood pressure.

Wood betony has been included in our monographs because it is in very common use amongst herbalists in the UK, the authors included, primarily as a nerve tonic with special reference to the head, and thus a reliever of headaches. Clearly this action cannot be directly linked to its tannin content, except in cases of headache from sinusitis and head colds, as mentioned by Bartram, Chevallier and Wood. Actually there is no evidence, in what exists for this under-researched plant, that it contains any tannins. The putative hypotensive action linked to its flavonoid content seems more relevant to its use as a nervine agent but this action is only mentioned by several of our authors published after Tyler’s Honest Herbal. There is no entry at all for wood betony in the Complete Commission E Monographs. In order to trace the origin of betony as a remedy for the head, we need to explore our earlier writers and to look as far back as Roman times in order to recount the history of this former panacea.

Antonius Musa, the physician to Emperor Augustus (63 BC to 14 AD), wrote an essay on betony and its power to cure 47 diseases. He is mentioned by name in our version of the Salernitan Herbal, where 39 separate conditions can be identified, and by Bauhin, Parkinson and Culpeper Bauhin’s list, directly cited from Musa, seems to consist of 44 uses. The large entry on Betony in the Herbal of Apuleius Platonicus, and in the Old English Herbarium, where there are 29 indications, are largely, although not wholly, based on Musa’s writings. Separately, Dioscorides writes a not insubstantial entry on betony, in notable distinction to Pliny, who has very little to say. Let us explore the uses of betony cited from Musa by Bauhin, one by one but in an order suiting the modern practitioner, and to follow their transmission through to present-day authors in order to map out what remains of the knowledge of this panacea among the herbal practitioners and writers of today.

Dioscorides’ (IV 1) name for betony is ‘kestron’, also ‘psychrotrophon’ because it is found in very cold places. Bauhin informs us that the name ‘kestron’ refers to betony’s sharp spike of flowers. Dioscorides further states that it is called ‘bettonica’ or ‘rosmarina’ by the Romans and in the Old English Herbarium the former name is given, alongside the Old English ‘biscopwyrt’. In later herbals the title ‘betonica’ is consistently used and there seems to be certainty about the identification of kestron.

Bauhin and the Old English Herbarium commence their list of the uses of betony with a protective influence, keeping safe men’s bodies and souls, especially after dark, when nightmares and terrifying visions may arise. The plant protects holy places and sepulchres from such fearful sights. Only Dalechamps cites Musa by name on this aspect of betony, concluding that ‘it is hofy. Our other authors, including Dioscorides and Pliny, do not mention the claim, except Grieve, who cites Apelius’. As a remedy for nightmares, it pops up later in Bartram and again in Menzies-Trull.

Betony For Digestion

Betony: Genito-Urinary Uses

Betony And The Nervous System

Betony: Other Applications

Recommendations

Dosage: the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia recommends 2-4 g three times a day of dried herb. This dosage range for the dried herb seems to match that of Dioscorides, who advises the powdered herb be taken in wine or another vehicle. Betony in tablet form could be used today. Other authors propose a dose of as much as 8 g with honey to remedy genito-urinary problems, without indication of length of treatment, and to 12 g or even 16 g in acute conditions. This last dose is said to induce a laxative effect. These larger doses are likely to have been used for short periods only.

Recommendations On Safety

• No safety concerns are documented.

Constituents

Volatile oils

Monoterpenes 0-5%; oxygenated monoterpenes 0.4-1.4%; sesquiterpenes 62-71 %; oxygenated sesquiterpenes 4-11 %.

Total 0.04%, monoterpenes 0.6%; sesquiterpenes 71%: germacrene D 42.8%, gamma-cadinene 6.3%, delta-cadinene 5%, alpha-amorphene 3.9%, alpha-cadinol 2.3%, alpha-bergamotene 1.2%, beta-bourbonene 1.9% (wild, Serbia).

Total 0.5%, sesquiterpenes: isocaryophyllene 22.9%, beta-caryophyllene.

Total 0.02%, germacrene D 20.1%, beta-caryophyllene 14.6%, caryophyllene oxide 7.9%, beta-humulene 6.7% (wild, Croatia).

Stachys sylvatica, sesquiterpenes: germacrene D, beta farnesene, mint sulphide; alkane: n-tetracosane (wild, Italy).

Phenylpropanoids

Total polyphenols 6.75%, phenolic acids 2.7%, flavonoids 0.15%.

Phenolic acids

Caffeic acid 3.8% (cultivated, Hungary).

Phenylethanoid glycosides

Acetoside, betonyosides A-F, campneosides II, forsythoside B, leucosceptoside B (cultivated, Japan).

Flavonoids

Flavone glycosides: tricin glycosides, luteolin glycoside and C-glycoside, apigenin diglycoside and apigenin coumaroylglucoside.

Apigenin glycosides and C-glycosides, quercetin glycosides.

Tannins

Total 5.6% calculated as gallic acid 6%.