Betony: Other Applications

Wood alone among the modern authors also mentions a lower respiratory condition treatable with betony, namely bronchitis. The respiratory tract is in fact another body system for which betony is recorded as having uses. Dale-champs and Bauhin state Musa’s recommendation of the herb in warm water as beneficial to those sighing and breathing with difficulty; while the leaves in honey help consumptives, especially those who cough up purulent matter. Betony in an eclegma, or thick syrup made from honey, sometimes conveyed to the mouth on a root of liquorice which is licked clean, and taken for 9 days eases a cough. Dioscorides also mentions betony with honey for tuberculosis and for internal abscesses, while 3 obols (1.7 g) of the powdered herb in 1 cyathos (45 mL) of tepid and diluted wine helps those that spit blood (haemoptysis). Galen states that betony cleanses the lungs and Serapio repeats this, adding a strengthening action. None of these points is listed in the Old English Herbarium. The Salernitan herbal repeats Musa and Dioscorides, but with different dosages or length of administration of the remedy. Macer mentions cough only. These indications are once again passed down in full or in part through the Renaissance writers as far as Culpeper before disappearing.

Musa proposes betony for the treatment of intermittent malarial fevers and continual fevers, but Dioscorides makes no such proposal nor that of the plant bruised with salt and placed in the nostrils for nosebleed. It appears only in those authors drawing from Musa, here Dale-champs, Bauhin, the Old English Herbarium, the Salernitan herbal and Parkinson, who sources Bauhin. These same authors cite another use from Musa, of a decoction of the roots and powdered herb applied externally to a painful, gouty joint. This time Serapio repeats the use as well, as does Miller in the 18th century alongside rheumatism, for which conditions a diet drink of betony, wood sage (the hepatotoxic Teucrium scorodonia) and ground-pine Ajuga chamaepitys was recommended. The other strand to betony’s former reputation for joint problems commences with the treatment by internal administration for hip pains in Dioscorides and Galen, which are duly transmitted, sometimes as sciatica, by the Renaissance herbalists (see the discussion of hip pain under ground ivy). Grieve also lists rheumatism, attributing an alterative action to betony, and her indication is repeated by Priest & Priest, Bartram, Menzies-Trull and Wood. For this condition, Menzies-Trull wants it prescribed with skullcap Scutellaria lateriflora and black cohosh Cimicifuga racemosa.

Finally, there is a range of external uses to which betony has been put. Musa reports that a decoction of the roots in water, reduced to a third, then fomented or the powdered leaf applied heals pains of the eyes. The expressed juice of the leaves or the pounded leaves macerated in water eases pains in the ears if inserted lukewarm after being mixed with rose-oil. Internally, 1 drachm (4 g) of the leaves infused in 4 cyathi (180 mL) of hot water draws down through the lower organs that blood whose vapours rise back to pour into the eyes while the leaves of this herb eaten will sharpen the sight. These may have some relevance to the differential diagnosis and treatment of head pain and sinusitis. The decoction in old wine or vinegar stops toothache, if the mouth is regularly washed with it. Mixed with sheep fat to form an ointment, the herb heals carbuncles. It counters poison and the bites of snakes or any poisonous or rabid animal, when not only taken internally but also applied externally on a plaster. Applied with salt, it can heal sinuous and burrowing ulcers.

Dioscorides too notes the use of betony for bites of wild animals, as does Galen, but the former also countenances the herb neutralizing deadly poisons. For this last misfortune, 1 holce (3.5 g) of the powdered herb is taken in wine. Indeed, if this is drunk beforehand, it will protect against harm from ingesting a deadly poison. On the other hand, the Old English Herbarium advises that betony is effective by causing a vomiting up of the poison taken if the herb and root to the weight of three coins is decocted in 4 cups of wine and drunk down. In the same text appear an ointment for boils on the face and a poultice for neck and throat problems, while the herb taken beforehand prevents drunkenness. Macer proposes the herb for all recent wounds and Miller adds the drawing of splinters to wound healing. Gerard recommends it for worms. Again these uses are variously transmitted down the centuries, until the external applications disappear by the 18th century.

In conclusion, we can agree with Tyler that betony has been proposed for virtually any disease conceived of, certainly up to Culpeper’s time. It has been advocated for gastrointestinal, urinary, gynaecological, respiratory, mus-culoskeletal and skin problems. It treats the organs of special sense and has had a limited use in problems of the nervous system, before becoming a special cephalic remedy for a variety of nervous problems. Only the cardiovascular system is not mentioned, but this could be related to the lack of understanding of diseases of the heart and circulation before the mid 18th century.

There is little research available to support this. What does exist usually features other species of betony. Eighty-three patients with chronic cholecystitis and cholangitis received stachyglen (total flavonoids from the herb Stachys neglecta) for 3-4 weeks and it was found that stachyglen exerts a choleretic effect.

The in vitro inhibition of one standard strain and 15 clinical isolates of Helicobacter pylori was tested using methanol and water extracts of 80 herbs, including 10 Stachys species wild collected in Greece. Stachys alopecuros was included in the 13 most useful herbs alongside three species of Origanum but the position of Stachys officinalis was not given.

The volatile oils of eight species of Stachys growing in Greece were tested against six bacteria and five fungi, and Stachys scardica was the most effective, but, as in many studies, no oil inhibited growth of Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Studies have shown anti-oxidant activity in a range of Stachys species and found a correlation with the concentration of polyphenols although Vundac et al (2007) argue that only the scavenging of free radicals is significant. Matkowski & Piotrowska (2006) included Stachys officinalis in their research into the antioxidant activity of several medicinal herbs. Betony, along with white horehound Marrubium vulgare, showed itself the strongest of the plants tested in inhibiting lipid oxidation.

Until further research is forthcoming, this former panacea is probably better considered in practice as a tonic, not only of the nervous system but of the digestive system also, owing to its bitter, aromatic and spasmolytic qualities. It should not be forgotten as a herb for respiratory catarrh, while its virtue as a diuretic and urinary herb and with regard to hypertension, prohibition in pregnancy, or its true effects on the bowel should be subject to further testing, including, where ethical, clinical trials.