Herb to Know: Wood Betony


Wood betony’s bright blooms attract bees, butterflies and birds to the garden in mid to late summer.

Photo by Jerry Pavia

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Stachys officinalis
• Also known as common hedgenettle, bishop’s-wort and purple betony
• Hardy to Zone 4

Wood betony’s longstanding reputation as a panacea still echoes in folk sayings, such as the Spanish “he has as many virtues as betony” and the Italian “sell your coat and buy betony.” The herb’s reputation spread on the other side of the Atlantic, too: “There is no illness brought by cold in which betony cannot be administered effectively,” wrote the Colonial American herbalist John Sauer.

Herbalists of yore recommended wood betony for ailments ranging from coughs to lack of libido. Today we know many of these claims to be exaggerated, but wood betony still is a fascinating herb with many virtues.

A Powerful Reputation

A perennial herb hardy to Zone 4, wood betony (Stachys officinalis) is native to Europe, western Asia and northern Africa. (Another plant known as wood betony, Pedicularis canadensis, is native to North America.) Like many other members of the mint family, S. officinalis has square stems with short, fine hairs. Toothed leaves grow at the base of the plant, and in mid to late summer, spiked heads of tubular, red-violet blooms appear atop 2- to 3-foot stems. 

For centuries, this herb was thought to have special properties. The ancient Egyptians and Anglo-Saxons believed betony to be magical, and in the Middle Ages, both men and women wore betony amulets to ward off evil. The early Romans listed wood betony as a cure for 47 separate maladies. Some claim the name betony derives from the Celtic word bewton (“good for the head”), referring to its use for cerebral afflictions, such as headaches, nervousness and even hangovers. The herb’s reputation for healing continued well into the 17th century, when betony was used to treat asthma, bronchitis, kidney problems, excess sweating and to purge the body of worms.

Modern Uses for Wood Betony

Betony’s reputation for healing has come into question over the last century. But some folk healers and herbalists still use betony infusions (tea) and tinctures to treat head-related afflictions (including migraines, toothaches, anxiety and sleeping troubles). Betony is also used for diarrhea, menstrual problems, mouth and throat irritations, and skin conditions. A Russian study found that betony contains glycosides, which may lower blood pressure—one possible explanation for the herb’s reputed ability to relieve headaches and anxiety. According to Tyler’s Honest Herbal (Routledge, 1999) by Steven Foster and Varro Tyler, betony contains about 15 percent tannins, which supports its use as an astringent to treat diarrhea, mouth and throat irritations, and skin problems.

For relaxation or for use as a general tonic, a tea can be made by covering 1 teaspoon dried betony leaves with 1 cup of boiling water, then steeping for about 5 minutes. It tastes much like black tea (made from Camellia sinensis) but contains no caffeine. For sore throats and gum inflammations, gargle with the cool tea. (Caution: Wood betony is a uterine stimulant and should not be used during pregnancy. Excessive doses of the herb also can cause vomiting.)

Growing Wood Betony

An attractive addition to the cottage or woodland garden, betony grows easily from seed, root divisions or cuttings. The plant prefers fertile, well-drained soil in a site that receives full sun to partial shade. Once established, betony plants require little care, other than division every three to four years when the crowns begin to decline. (For more about division, search “division” at www.herbcompanion.com .)

You can begin to harvest the herb as soon as the plant is established. For best quality, collect the aerial parts (leaves, stems and buds) just before the plant flowers. Dry on screens in a cool, dry place, then store in tightly sealed containers. 

Wood Betony Poultice

Try a wood betony poultice or compress for skin ulcers, cuts, sores and insect bites. To make a poultice, boil the chopped fresh or dried leaves in a small amount of water for 2 to 5 minutes. Strain off the excess liquid, then apply the warm herb to the skin, using a cloth to hold it in place. To make a compress, discard the herb and apply the extracted water to the affected area with a clean cloth or cotton ball and secure the compress with athletic tape.

Where to Buy:

• J. L. Hudson, Seedsman (seeds): www.jlhudsonseeds.net
• Lazy S’s Farm Nursery (plants): www.lazyssfarm.com  
• Mountain Rose Herbs (seeds, dried herb, extract): www.mountainroseherbs.com  
• Penn Herb Co. (dried herb, capsules):  www.pennherb.com
• Sandy Mush Herb Nursery (seeds): www.sandymushherbs.com  

Herbalist and writer Paul Whitmer lives and gardens in Pennsylvania.