Motherwort: An Ancient Herb for Modern Gardens
My first experience with motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) was enough to make me a lifelong believer in the plant’s supportive actions. I was going through a particularly stressful time, juggling a looming deadline, a beloved pet’s unexpected injury, and a painful anniversary of a family member’s death. I had not dealt with my stress well, and it began to manifest as a tightness in my throat and a fluttery, anxious heartbeat.
I mentioned my symptoms to a community herbalist, Joanne Bauman, who suggested I consider motherwort. The following day, I diluted 2 dropperfuls of motherwort tincture in a small amount of water, drank it, and then returned to my work. About 20 minutes later, my cyclical and stressful thoughts about deadline started to surface. Almost immediately, however, those thoughts seemed to hit a wall and dissipate into an overall sense of well-being. Best of all, I no longer felt the fluttery, nervous heartbeat that often accompanies my moments of acute stress. The change was so abrupt that I actually felt surprised and slightly disoriented before remembering that I had motherwort to thank. Because of this experience, motherwort is my go-to plant ally for easing anxiety — especially the kind that’s accompanied by a tight chest and heart palpitations.
Motherwort’s Medicinal Properties
After hearing about my positive experience with motherwort, Bauman gave me a few seedlings to transplant to my medicinal herb garden. I planted the starts and began familiarizing myself with the other gifts this generous plant has to offer. I learned that motherwort is in a class of herbs called “nervines,” which help release the anxiety and tension that accompany stress. Motherwort is also one of the plants approved by the German Commission E for nervous cardiac disorders and for thyroid hyperfunction. It’s sedative, diuretic, hypotensive (lowers blood pressure), antispasmodic, and an emmenagogue (stimulates or increases menstrual flow).
Motherwort’s common and Latin names both provide clues to its healing properties. The plant’s genus name, “Leonurus,” means “lionhearted,” and motherwort does indeed provide inner strength during emotionally trying times. The plant’s species name, “cardiaca,” stems from the Latin word for heart. In Rosemary Gladstar’s book Herbal Recipes for Vibrant Health, she classifies motherwort as a heart tonic that nourishes and strengthens the heart muscle and its blood vessels. Gladstar says motherwort is particularly useful for tachycardia, rapid heartbeat, and other heart conditions caused by stress and anxiety. (If you’re taking heart medication, then consult with a health care provider before introducing new herbs to your regimen; motherwort may be contraindicated.)
The plant’s common name, “motherwort,” includes the word “wort,” which is historically associated with useful herbs and medicinal plants. “Mother” hints at the plant’s traditional use as a women’s herb. Indeed, women have used motherwort for centuries to help start their menstrual flow if it’s late, relieve cramps, and ease symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes and mood swings. Motherwort was also a common component in midwives’ baskets to reduce anxiety associated with childbirth and postpartum depression. As an emmenagogue, motherwort promotes uterine contractions, which is why it’s sometimes given to women in the last few days of pregnancy to hasten childbirth. (For this same reason, motherwort is not safe to consume during the vast majority of a pregnancy, or by someone experiencing heavy bleeding during their menstrual cycle. Women with endometriosis or fibroids should not use motherwort regularly.)
From Seed to Harvest
A member of the mint family (Lamiaceae), motherwort is a hardy perennial in Zones 3 to 8. It’s native to southeastern Europe and Central Asia, and has naturalized in the United States to the point where it’s now considered invasive in some areas. For this reason, consider growing motherwort in pots, in a spot where you can keep it contained, or simply be cognizant of removing seed heads so the plant doesn’t spread too aggressively.
Motherwort thrives in well-drained, loamy soil and full sun to partial shade. It has a clumping habit, and people have reported it reaching nearly 7 feet tall when properly fertilized. (I’ve never fertilized my hardy motherwort, and although it has grown effortlessly and bloomed beautifully, it has never reached more than 4 feet tall.) Pollinators adore motherwort, but because it’s not particularly showy, you may want to consider planting it along the edge of a field or as a windbreak.
You can direct-sow motherwort seeds in fall or early spring; however, I typically have better luck starting perennial plants from seed indoors and then transplanting them to prepared garden beds after all danger of frost has passed. To germinate, motherwort seeds need a period of cold treatment (stratification) for a few weeks, which will trick them into thinking they’ve gone through winter and are ready for spring growth. To stratify your seeds, mix them with a few cups of barely damp sand, store them in a sealed container, and place them in your refrigerator for 2 to 3 weeks. After they’re stratified, plant your seeds and just barely cover them with soil. Seeds should germinate in 2 to 3 weeks, at which point they can be thinned (if direct-seeded) or transplanted about 2 feet apart. Keep the established plants well-watered, and harvest the flowering tops to prevent this self-seeding herb from taking over your garden.
Harvest the aboveground parts just as the plant begins to fully bloom, which should be anytime between late June and August depending on your growing zone. You may want to wear gloves when harvesting, because motherwort can be prickly, and the hairs and flowering tops are a bit sharp.
I find motherwort too bitter to enjoy as a tea, so instead consider making a tincture, glycerite, or infused vinegar from the fresh plant.
Make a Motherwort Tincture
My favorite way to prepare motherwort is to make a tincture with fresh plant material and brandy. Some herbalists use higher-proof, whole-grain alcohol as the solvent for their tinctures, which you can certainly do, but I find that 80-proof brandy still extracts the fresh plant’s properties just fine, and I’m much more likely to take my medicine if I enjoy the taste!
- Harvest the top third of the aboveground motherwort plant (flower, leaves, and stems) while it’s in bloom.
- Cut the plant material into small bits and stuff them into a canning jar until it’s completely full.
- Pour brandy into the jar until all of the plant material is submerged.
- Transfer the herb and brandy mixture to a blender, and blend thoroughly.
- Return the blended mixture to your jar, and seal tightly. If you’re using a metal lid and band, place a piece of parchment paper between the lid and jar to prevent corrosion.
- Place your jar in a cool, dark location away from direct sunlight. A few times per week, shake your jar to make sure the plant material is fully submerged. If any of the alcohol has evaporated or you see uncovered plant material at the top of the jar, then add more brandy and seal tightly once more.
- After 6 to 8 weeks have passed, strain the plant material through a cheesecloth and squeeze out every last drop of precious medicine.
- Pour your finished motherwort tincture into small, dark-colored, 1-ounce dropper bottles. The tinted bottles will protect your tincture from sun exposure, and a properly stored tincture will last for up to 10 years.
- Dosage: Take 1 to 2 dropperfuls of tincture 1 to 3 times per day. To help with the taste, dilute your tincture in an ounce of water, tea, or juice.
Hannah Kincaid is an editor at Mother Earth Living. She maintains a native medicinal herb garden at her home and enjoys using plants in every aspect of her life. Follow Hannah on Instagram: @Hannah_Aften or on Facebook: @HannahKincaidEditor.
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