Betony: Genito-Urinary Uses

Other abdominal pains for which betony may be used relate to the urinary system and reproductive organs. Honey is required in the vehicle for kidney problems. Dalechamps and Bauhin report Musa advising 2 drachms (8 g) of herb mixed with honey for defects of the kidneys and double this dose in 4 cyathi of water (180 mL) to break stones. With the addition of 27 peppercorns and no honey, the herb is good for pains in the sides, which may refer to ureteric pain. Since the recommendation for dropsy follows that for stones, this may indicate oedema of renal origin, although ascites cannot be ruled out. Certainly Dioscorides specifies oedemata after kidney problems and bladder pain, for which 2 drachms (8 g) in honey water is the dose. He claims betony is diuretic, as does Galen, who confirms its use in kidney stones. On the other hand, Macer speaks of dropsy and this is how Dioscorides’ oedemata is interpreted by Fuchs and the other Renaissance writers. The Old English Herbarium also offers recipes for both pains in the side and pains in the loins. In both cases betony is taken with peppercorns, 27 in the former recipe and 17 in the latter, the herbs being powdered and gently boiled in aged wine. Three cupfuls are taken warm at night on an empty stomach. Another recipe for sore loins with aching of the thighs requires less betony with no added peppercorns to be decocted in beer, or in warm water but definitely not beer, if the patient is feverish. The physicians of Myddfai give a different indication for betony juice mixed with a little wine, honey and nine peppercorns: it is to be drunk morning and evening for 9 days for headache. The uses in kidney and bladder problems, including stones, pass down more or less again as far as Culpeper. The Salernitan herbal recommends betony for pain in the penis also, and Gerard mentions bloody urine, both of which are possible symptoms of urinary stones. Quincy mentions its diuretic action. Betonys usefulness for urinary problems is then quite lost until Menzies-Trull and Wood list without comment enuresis, and in the latter text only, weak expulsion of urine. Clearly, the old indications for betony in relation to kidney and bladder have not been explored for centuries.

Musa affirms emmenogogic as well as diuretic actions for betony. The herb stimulates menstruation, brings a speedy delivery in childbirth and, at a dose of 2 drachms (8 g) in hot water or honey water, eases womb pains due to cold. Dioscorides and Galen also consider betony to stimulate menstruation. Dioscorides offers a dose of 1 drachm (4 g) in water with or without honey for uterine pains and uterine suffocation. Bauhin explains that this action is due to the sharpness and heat of betony. However, the texts he has sourced seem to have additional interpolated material. For instance, he claims that Pliny also lists the herb as an emmenogogue – an action missing from the augmented list of Pliny’s cited in Fuchs and Dalechamps, suggesting numerous corruptions of Pliny’s Natural History then in circulation. Bauhin claims too that Galen’s assessment of betony as hot in the third degree is the reason why it not only stimulates menstruation and expels the afterbirth at the end of labour, but is also an abortifacient. The Salernitan herbal advises 2 drachms (8 g) of betony for women who have great difficulty in giving birth, alone with hot water if they have a fever, or with mirabolans if fever is absent. Equally a pessary of the decocted herb inserted while a syrup of the herb with honey is ingested will cleanse the womb and promote conception. These treatments are not recorded by Serapio, and no entry at all for betony is found in Ibn Sina, nor are they repeated by the other writers of the Medieval period, save Macer’s partial restatement of Dioscorides. Hildegard proposes that a woman takes betony in wine often for heavy menstruation ‘at the wrong time’. It is also a remedy, she continues, to counter a magical spell which incites a man to fall madly in love with a woman, or vice versa, or generally to banish foolishness in a person, for ‘at times the deceit of the devil extends his shadow over it, and over similar herbs’. In these cases the herb is applied externally because the eating of betony ‘harms his understanding and intellect, and makes him nearly mad’.

Uterine pain, suffocation and labour reappear as indications based on the emmenogogic action of betony from Fuchs onwards, when Dioscorides is being closely studied. The English writers Gerard and Parkinson speak of’cleansing of the mother’ and the ‘falling down of pains of the mother’ respectively. Neither mention suffocation, but it is the related indication of hysteria which appears after more than two and a half centuries in the National Botanic Pharmacopoeia. The other uterine uses, and betony’s emmenogogic action, are not mentioned after Culpeper Only Chevallier among the modern writers warns against taking betony during pregnancy. Where Quincy recommends a decoction after a hard labour, he is referring to the herb’s tonic effect.