Heartsease: Modern Applications

Grieve offers many more names for this plant, among them: love lies bleeding, love idol, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, Kit run in the fields, stepmother, pink-eyed John, bouncing Bet. Discussing the names, she tells how the plant was prized for its potency as a love charm ‘in ancient days’, hence perhaps its name heartsease. Along with the uses familiar from the Renaissance authors, Grieve records the flowers were formerly considered cordial and good in diseases of the heart, attributing to this use a further possible origin of the name heartsease. Grieve offers no source for use of the plant as cordial. There is no obvious mention of this in our authors up to this point. Perhaps it stems more from a folk tradition, or perhaps even from a misinterpretation somewhere of the word angina. Leyel (1949) accords the herb cordial properties. She cites the past uses as in our authors, adds ‘a good herb in disorders of the blood’, and mentions its use in ‘moist cutaneous eruptions in children’, particularly crusta lactea and tinea capitis. Then she continues ‘it has derived the name heartsease partly from its early use as a heart tonic and it can be taken quite safely to relieve palpitation of the heart and to soothe a tired and irritable heart. Since Leyel edited Grieve’s book, we should not be too surprised at a similar entry, but it does not take us nearer to a source for the ‘early use’ in this context.

Wren’s edition of 1932 records only diaphoretic and diuretic actions, used in blood disorders and catarrhal infections, with chief use for moist cutaneous eruptions in children, and then a reference to our earlier use for convulsions – it ‘is said to prevent convulsions’, and here the convulsions covered are those in both epilepsy and asthma.

Weiss carries no reference to the heart. It is a saponin drug, he says, with adequate literature to commend it for skin conditions. He cites its successful use by paediatricians for eczema in infants, milk crust and other chronic skin conditions, used as a tea internally, added to feeds or mixed with milk, and externally as compress. It can be useful for eczema in adults too, though taken over a long time. Adults may use it in powder form. In this context, it is interesting that an in-vitro study showed that the infusion, decoction and ethanolic extract of aerial parts of heartsease showed antimicrobial activity against seven bacteria and Candida albicans. These extracts were more effective than extracts with solvents which selected for particular types of compound. This included moderate activity against Pseudomonas aeruginosa, which is an unusual finding. Weiss adds French sources reporting efficacy in tuberculous skin conditions.

The British Herbal Pharmacopoeia is a little broader. It records actions as expectorant, diuretic, antirheumatic, antiinflammatory and laxative; with indications for pertussis, acute bronchitis, cystitis, polyuria and dysuria, capillary fragility and cutaneous affections, specifically for eczema and skin eruptions with serous exudate particularly associated with rheumatic symptoms. It is noteworthy that there is no diaphoretic action mentioned here, given this designation in Wren and its earlier reputation in bringing on sweats in venereal disease. Such diaphoresis may represent a key action in remedying skin conditions.

Modern authors tend to stay close to the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia and the older tradition and omit any cordial reference. Chevallier and Hoffman cover the familiar ground of skin conditions, chest complaints, diuresis and rheumatism. Hoffman explains ‘Both the salicylates and the rutin contained in heartsease are anti-inflammatory. This action helps explain the traditional use of the herb for arthritis. The saponins account for its expectorant action, while the mucilage it contains soothes the chest’. He adds that the high rutin concentration will help counter capillary fragility, hence its benefit for bruising, broken capillaries and oedema; use in atherosclerosis, hence against high blood pressure, and a laxative action are included too. Wood suggests the name heartsease stems from the French pensees, since the heart is associated with thoughts and how the original use was to reduce excessive and unwanted thoughts. He suggests the use for eczema originated in homeopathy, though use in, for example, Parkinson, for itch, scabs and old sores demonstrates an older tradition. Bartram adds alterative, depurative, antiallergic and anti-acne actions to the British Herbal Pharmacopoeia list, noting the herb as rich in zinc. We find here too a recent reprise of the indication for venereal disease with Bartram citing ‘some success reported by Dr Schlegel, Moscow, for STDs generally, with ulceration’. He adds too its use for milk crust and ringworm, for prevention of capillary haemorrhage in steroid therapy and that it is still taken as daily in Russia ‘by those with a tendency to TB and scrofula’.