Stachys is a genus of about 300 species of annual and perennial herbaceous plants and shrubs in the family Lamiaceae. The distribution of the genus covers Europe, Asia, Africa, Australasia and North America. Common names include Heal-all, self-heal, woundwort, betony, lamb’s ears, hedgenettle, Stachys betonica, lousewort, purple betony, bishopwort, bishop’s elder, spiked betony, and St. Bride’s comb. There are five species of Stachys growing wild in England – the once much-valued Betony (S. Betonica); the Marsh Stachys, or Clown’s Woundwort (S. palustris); the true Woundwort (S. Germanica), a doubtful native, occurring occasionally on limestone soils in England, but very common on the Continent, where the dense covering of its leaves was at one time in rustic surgery employed in the place of lint for dressing wounds, the low-creeping Field Stachys (S. arvensis); and the Hedge Stachys, or Hedge Woundwort (S. sylvatica), perhaps the commonest of them all. This plant can still be found growing wild in New York and Massachusetts, but it is protected some places, like in Northern Ireland.
It likes to grow in the dappled shade of woodlands, along woodland paths, or even in meadows where the sun is not too intense. Flowering stalks shoot up 1.2-2 ft/0.6m-0.45m from a rosette of leaves, and the plant will spread from clumps to cover the ground. It is perennial from the far South to the North (zone 4 – down to -25F/-32C). You can divide mature clumps in the spring to make more plants. Like most members of the mint family (which is easy to distinguish by its square stems–just feel it), wood betony is a favorite of bees. History The Wood Betony (S. Betonica according to present-day nomenclature, though nemed Betonica officinalis, by Linnaeus) was held in high repute not only in the Middle Ages, but also by the Greeks who extolled its qualities. An old Italian proverb, ‘ Sell your coat and buy Betony, ‘ and ‘He has as many virtues as Betony,’ a saying of the Spaniards, show what value was placed on its remedial properties. Antonius Musa, chief physician to the Emperor Augustus, wrote a long treatise, showing it was a certain cure for no less than fortyseven diseases. Throughout the centuries, faith in its virtues as a panacea for all ills was thoroughly ingrained in the popular estimation. It was largely cultivated in the physic gardens, both of the apothecaries and the monasteries, and may still be found growing about the sites of these ancient buildings. Robert Turner, a physician writing in the latter half of the seventeenth century, recounts nearly thirty complaints for which Betony was considered efficacious, and adds, ‘I shall conclude with the words I have found in an old manuscript under the virtues of it: “More than all this have been proved of Betony.” ‘ In addition to its medicinal virtues, Betony was endowed with power against evil spirits. On this account, it was carefully planted in churchyards and hung about the neck as an amulet or charm, sanctifying, as Erasmus tells us, ‘those that carried it about them,’ and being also ‘good against fearful visions’ and an efficacious means of ‘driving away devils and despair.’ An old writer, Apelius, says: ‘It is good whether for the man’s soul or for his body; it shields him against visions and dreams, and the wort is very wholesome, and thus thou shalt gather it, in the month of August without the use of iron; and when thou hast gathered it, shake the mold till nought of it cleave thereon, and then dry it in the shade very thoroughly, and with its root altogether reduce it to dust: then use it and take of it when thou needst.’ Many extravagant superstitions grew up round Betony, one, of very ancient date, was that serpents would fight and kill each other if placed within a ring composed of it; and others declared that even wild beasts recognized its efficacy and used it if wounded, and that stags, if wounded with a dart, would search out Betony, and, eating it, be cured. It was burned at Summer Solstice for purification and protection. In Britain, an ointment made of rosemary and betony was applied on adder bites. Interestingly enough, a Gaelic prayer said on the feastday of St. Bride (betony is also known as St. Bride’s Comb), runs: “Early on Bride’s morn shall the serpent come from the hole. I will not harm the serpent, nor will the serpent harm me.” Another version of this prayer sounds much older and feels like it has nothing to do with snakes or saints; it involves making a snake shape out of peat and saying, “This is the day of Bride. The Queen shall come from the mound. I will not touch the Queen, nor will the Queen touch me.” St. Bride is a Christian version of the goddess Bridgit (the Church of St. Bride in London’s Fleet Street was built over a temple to Bridgit, for instance). In another tradition, Asatru, betony is sometimes identified with attorlothe (OE attorlaðe / poison-hater) and included in the Nine Herbs Charm (Mugwort (“most senior of herbs”), Plantain (“mother of herbs”), Lamb’s Cress (“resolute”), Betony (“fought the serpent”–interesting in connection with the snake associations of this herb in Ireland), Chamomile (“never for infection should anyone yield their life”), Crab-Apple, Chervil and Fennel). In Wales, wood betony was worn in the hat to keep off witches. It is also considered protective, especially against fearful visions and despair. Hildegard of Bingen (12th century Germany) recommended stuffing dream pillows with betony to protect the sleeper from nightmares. A different way to take advantage of this herb’s protection is to dye some wool with it–it makes chartreuse on wool with an alum mordant. For extra oomph, dye some Z-twist yarn you have spun yourself (the twist slants in the same way as the diagonal bar in the letter Z). Z-twist is considered magickal and has been used historically in various cultures for items associated with shamanism. Only a small amount of yarn would be necessary to add to a garment as a decoration and protective amulet. Incorporating such a yarn into a bed blanket would be a handy way to ask betony’s protection against nightmares. Top Medicinal Action and Uses Betony was once the sovereign remedy for all maladies of the head, and its properties as a nervine and tonic are still acknowledged, though it is more frequently employed in combination with other nervines than alone. It is useful in hysteria, palpitations pain in the head and face, neuralgia and all nervous affections. In the Medicina Britannica (1666) we read: ‘I have known the most obstinate headaches cured by daily breakfasting for a month or six weeks on a decoction of Betony made with new milk and strained.’ As an aromatic, it has also astringent and alterative action, and combined with other remedies is used as a tonic in dyspepsia and as an alterative in rheumatism, scrofula and impurities of the blood. The weak infusion forms a very acceptable nervine tea, and in this way is extensively used in many localities. It has somewhat the taste of tea and all the good qualities of it, without the bad ones. To make Betony tea, pour a pint of boiling water on an ounce of the dried herb. A wineglassful of this decoction three times a dayproves a benefit against languid nervous headaches. The dried herb may also be smoked as tobacco, combined with Eyebright and Coltsfoot, for relieving headache. A pinch of the powdered herb will provoke violent sneezing. The dried leaves formed an ingredient in Rowley’s British Herb Snuff, which was at one time quite famous for headaches through sneezing, and it was sometimes combined with coltsfoot and eyebright and smoked for headache relief. The fresh leaves are said to have an intoxicating effect. They have been used to dye wool a fine yellow. Gerard tells us, among other uses, that Betony, ‘preserveth the lives and bodies of men from the danger of epidemical diseases. It helpeth those that loathe and cannot digest their food. It is used either dry or green either the root or herb – or the flowers, drunk in broth or meat or made into conserve syrup, water, electuary or powder – as everyone may best frame themselves, or as time or season requires.’ He proceeds to say that the herb cures the jaundice, falling sickness, palsy, convulsions, gout, dropsy and head troubles, and that ‘the powder mixed with honey is no less available for all sorts of colds or cough, wheezing, of shortness of breath and consumption,’ also that ‘the decoction made with mead and Pennyroyal is good for putrid agues,’ and made in wine is good as a vermifuge, ‘and also removes obstructions of the spleen and liver.’ Again, ‘the decoction with wine gargled in the mouth easeth the toothache…. It is a cure for the bites of mad dogs…. A dram of the powder taken with a little honey in some vinegar is good for refreshing those that are wearied by travel. It stayeth bleeding at the nose and mouth, and helpeth those that spit blood, and is good for those that have a rupture and are bruised. The green herb bruised, or the juice, applied to any inward hurt, or outward wound in body or head will quickly heal and close it up. It will draw forth any broken bone or splinter, thorn or other thing gotten into the flesh, also healeth old sores or ulcers and boils. The root is displeasing both to taste and stomach, whereas the leaves and flowers by their sweet and spicy taste, comfort both in meat and medicine.’ How To Grow Sow on Winter Solstice (see the Solstice Sowing page). Or sow at 41F/5C to germinate in 30-90 days. This would probably be a good seed to try cold moist stratification. You can sow in a paper towel that has been wet and wrung out, then put in a baggie and into the fridge, checking periodically for germination. Once you see it start to germinate, plant root size down in a tiny hole in the soil (don’t touch the root). Or you can try soaking in cold water in the fridge, with water changed daily, and then plant after two weeks. Or just plant outside in fall. Transplant to dappled shade and rich, moist soil. Harvest the budding tops in the morning after the dew has dried. This is a great bee herb! Part Used Medicinally The whole herb, collected from wild plants in July, when at their best, and dried. Collect only on a fine day, in the morning, but after the dew has been dried by the sun, Cut off the stems shortly above the root (which is no longer used, as in olden days); strip off all discoloured or insect-eaten leaves, and as the stems are fairly firm, tie them up in bunches of about six stalks together, spread out fanwise, so that the air can penetrate to them all, and hang them over strings to dry, either in half-shade, in the open air, or in the drying room. The bunches should be of uniform sizes to facilitate packing when dry. If dried out-of-doors, take in before there is any risk of becoming damp from dew or showers. For drying indoors, a warm, sunny attic or loft may be employed, the window being left open by day, so that there is a current of air, and the moist, hot air may escape: the door may also be left open. The temperature should be from 70 to 100 degrees F. Failing sun any ordinary shed, fitted with racks and shelves, can be used as a drying room, provided it is ventilated near the roof and has a warm current of air, caused by an ordinary coke or anthracite stove. The important point in drying is rapidity and the avoidance of steaming: the quicker the process of drying, the more even the colour obtained, making the product more saleable. All dried leaves and herbs should be packed away at once in wooden boxes or tins in a dry place, as otherwise they re-absorb about 12 per cent. of moisture from the air, and are liable to become mouldy. The herbs should not be pressed down heavily when packing, or they will tend to crumble.