Monday, 13 October 2014

Betony: Snippets of Interesting Things (interesting herbal things!), Part 5

NECESSARY DISCLAIMER!  ALL INFO GIVEN FOR EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES – don’t go diagnosing or treating yourself from info on this post!  Use a Doctor or qualified Herbalist!

I know these posts are supposed to be concerning the herbs I come across with reference to my Ovate OBOD studies this year…but early last week I had a dream, where I was in some woods with a small water inlet, surrounded on all sides by a plant I knew to be Wood or Water Betony. It had the most interesting smell, and I was aware it had many uses, and I was there to collect some and take it away for helping someone.  I was also hiding from someone else while I did this…in the manner of dreams I then woke up, with no memory of whether I had ever actually seen Wood (or Water) Betony in real life, or whether I knew what it looked like even.  So I decided this next post in this series of Snippets of Interesting (Herbal) Things – as it really should be known, should teach me some basics about Betony.  And you, of course.  I bet you don’t know much about Betony either…
So here it is, in its natural wooded environment.

Culpepper, as usual, had a lot to say about it, and gave a lengthy description:
The common or wood betony has many leaves arising from the root, which are somewhat broad and round at the ends, roundly dented about the edges, standing upon long stalks, from among which rise up small, square, slender, but yet upright, hairy stalks, with some leaves thereon, two apiece at the joints, smaller than the lower, whereon are set several spiked heads of flowers like lavender, but thicker and shorter for the most part, and of a reddish or purple colour, spotted with white spots both in the upper and lower part:, the seeds, being contained within the husks that hold the flowers, are blackish, somewhat long and uneven. The roots are many white thread strings; the stalk perishes, but the root, with some leaves thereon, abides all the winter.  The whole plant is somewhat small.[1]
I do like the way Culpepper describes in such depth, such detail.  He had quite a bit to say about the usage of this plant in his period too.

Historical Usage – Culpepper
The first thing he notes is that although the flowers appear in July, the plant itself is at its prime in May.  It’s ruled by Jupiter and under the sign of Aries (remember, medicine at this time was deeply entangled with both astrology and alchemy, so this was very relevant information for him to give – it would also govern when the plant was best given for maximum efficaciousness).  He gives a very long description for the many functions of this plant, and to give you a flavour, I’ll just quote the beginning of it:
Antonius Musa, physician to the emperor Julius Caesar, wrote a book on the virtues of this herb; and, amongst other virtues, said of it, that it preserves the lives and bodies of men from the danger of epidemical diseases and witchcrafts also. It is found by daily experience to be good for many diseases; it helps those that cannot digest their meat, those that have weak stomachs, or belchings, or a continual rising in their stomach[2], using it familiarly either green or dry; either the herb or root, or the flowers, drunk in broth or meat, or made into conserve, syrup, water, electuary[3], or powder, as everyone may best frame themselves unto, or as the time or season requires.  Taken any of the aforesaid ways, it helps the jaundice, falling sickness, the palsy, convulsions, or shrinking of the sinews; the gout, and those that are inclined to dropsies[4]; and those that have continual pains in their head, supposing that it turns to inflammation of the brain.  The powder mixed with pure honey is no less available for all sorts of coughs or colds, wheezing, shortness of breath, or distillations of thin rheum upon the lungs, which causes consumptions.  The decoction made with mead and a little penny-royal is good for those that are troubled with putrid agues[5], whether quotidian, tertian or quartan, and to draw down and evacuate the blood and humours that by falling into the eyes doth hinder the sight: the decoction thereof made in wine and taken kills the worms in the belly, opens obstructions both of the liver and spleen, cures stitches and pains in the back or side, the torments and griping pains of the bowels, and the wind-colic; and mixed with honey purges the belly, helps to bring down women’s menses, and is of special use for those troubled with the falling down of the womb[6], and pains thereof, and causes an easy and speedy delivery of women in childbirth; it also helps to break and expel the stone in either the bladder or kidneys.[7]
You can see why this is one of the herbs that in the medieval and through to the eighteenth century was referred to as a ‘cure-all’ – Culpepper and other practitioners could find a use for it for most ailments.  In addition, he cited it for usage in the case of: snake bites, toothache, ulcers and ‘fistulous’ sores, plague-sores and boils, travel weariness, nose or mouth bleeds, internal bleeding, bruises and wound healing.

Traditional Usage – Scotland
Agnes Walker, Botanist at Kelvingrove Museum Glasgow has looked into the long history of plant usage for health in the UK. She notes Betony is first referenced by Roman polymath and encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder (23-79AD):
He wrote his vast Naturalis Historia, and these included medicinal uses of plants. He reported that the treatments he mentioned often cured illness, but did not claim to know how they worked. […]  He mentioned some Gallic names of herbs, for example […] vettonica which is Betony, Stachys officinalis.[8]
Walker notes that in Scotland (as also evidenced by Culpepper’s very long list of claims) so many “extravagant uses grew up around betony that later it was ignored”; though she mentions a specific Scottish use for the plant as a tobacco substitute, as well as the standard usages of betony as headache remedy and nerve tonic.  She references a claim that “it was said that wild animals would seek out and eat betony if wounded, and would be cured”[9]. She also notes that another Scots botanist, Beith, has cautioned that since the uses of “betony and germander speedwell may have been confused as their early names were similar, so the Highland remedies may actually be germander speedwell”[10]. This is a good point to bear in mind, since often folk names for plants could lead to confusion, and now, when researching usage of the past, it’s as well to triple check names and references (and actions of herbs (as betony and speedwell do not do the same thing!) before being certain the correct remedy has been located!

Traditional Usage – England
Gabrielle Hatfield, a Research Fellow at both Kew and the University of East Anglia, spent a lifetime collecting snippets and stories of herblore and cures.  She found various mentions of Betony in her work.  She references (again, we’ve got a pattern going now!) the ‘cure all’ nature of betony by starting her mention of it with a proverb that used to be common usage in England, taken originally from Italy: ‘sell your coat and buy Betony’.  She found mention of betony first in the 1548 book by the physician Turner[11], who “recounts thirty complaints such as that can be cured by betony […], and then tells us: ‘I shall conclude with the words I have found in an old manuscript […] More than all this have been proved of betony’.”[12]

It was often used in conjunction with other herbs, as shown by the diary of George Ridpath, a mid eighteenth century minister in Stitchel. He says:
Munday (sic) May 2nd 1757.  […]sore distrest at a pain and stiffness in the lower ribs […]
Thursday May 5th[…] easier today, tho’ still greatly opprest.  Drank in the morning ground ivy with dandelion and betony, and a little lavender to flavour them.  Finding these things clearing my crop gradually, and promoting diuresis.[13]

She notes that in the twentieth century usage began to dwindle, with the infusion still being used for headaches, and for kidney complaints.  She quotes a letter received from a contributor who was young in the 1920s in Essex and “used to collect Betony for my grandfather who use to boil it and drink the water. I think this was for his kidneys or urine”[14].

Traditional Magical Usage
I’ve found it hard to find reliable sources for uses of betony magically, but have found various references to it on several websites, but they are not 100% reliable sites so I had to start asking around online, amongst my pagan practicing friends. From them, I got a variety of suggestions for folk magical use that they were aware of; it wasn’t seen as one of the major magical herbs, but a useful bolster to others. Its actions are claimed to be quite blanket, protecting a house from evil, and especially from the bites of snakes – that last reminded me of the Culpepper usage as a snakebite remedy, so that’s possibly where that idea came from.  Its usage as a general protector from evil seem to be specifically in the area of shielding from bad dreams, fantasies, daydreams (often added to dream pillows, tied around a bedroom in dried sprigs, or sprinkled at the base of doorways) - which again ties in to its herbal health usage for anxiety and for nervous exhaustion, its application as a sedative plant.  I’ve noticed before that often, the magical uses of herbs and other plants are not far from their actual physical and medicinal use, they just move into a more symbolic or metaphorical area.  (Not always, but often!)

A mention I found in an old (and very faded and tatty) medicines sales catalogue dated 1990 I got from a charity shop in Worthing years ago, was that their ‘wonderful Bettony (sic) ampules protect against the bad dreams, and the unwanted attentions of men’ – which did make me wonder if only women could take these, and not men pursued by a woman they didn’t like…??
Chatting to a Druid friend, I was told it was sometimes used in Midsummer, added to the herbs thrown on the fire before the participants would jump over.  They were supposed to be leaving behind their darkest fears and dreams, their inner demons and those self-generated things that hold you back, as they moved through the smoke - again, a usage related to its medicinal use for anxiety related headaches and as a tonic for nervous disorder.

Annoyingly, I wasn't able to use my copy ofthis book for this post, as I've lent it out and not got it back yet.  But its worth a read, for thoseinterested in herbs in hoodoo.

In Hoodoo, it’s referred to as Lousewort, and also used for protection, but specifically from evil spirits and as an ‘uncrossing’ plant (a reverser of curses, hexes).  For this purpose it was often used with Agrimony (see a previous post on this herb, by me) in the form of incense burned on charcoal.  It’s falling out of common favour though, I’m told, seen as a relic of the old European days, not so much a homegrown remedy (which is especially important in some hoodoo, the local and meaningful provenance of as many items as used as possible).[15]

Modern Usage and Cultivation
Ever reliable Jekka assures me that the main kind of Betony (Stachys Officinalis) is a hardy herbaceous perennial, growing to 60cm (24in) and spreading 25cm (10in).  Dense spikes of pink or purple flowers can appear all summer, and the serrated leaves contain bitter aromatic oil[16].  If you want to grow it, the seeds should be planted about now – early autumn – while still fresh.  Germination can be as early as one month. The young plants need to be wintered in a cold frame before being planted out in spring.  If you’re going to plant directly outside in autumn, then cover with leaf mould (useful mulch, with low nutrient content so suiting most herbs), with germination not occurring till spring. Once plants have grown up, separate and plant 30cm apart[17].

As to where to plant it, its hardy and adaptable, though particularly likes the edges of wooded areas; and can even be planted along with other flowers in a pot, provided a loam substrate is used. It’s easy to maintain too, needing little care other than deadheading in autumn and seed saving at the same time.  She goes on to suggest if you are going to use the leaf for medicinal purposes it is best saved in late spring before the plant flowers.  The flowers can be picked for drying just as they begin to open.

Modern Medicinal Usage
In Europe and the UK, betony is often used to treat diarrhoea, cystitis and liver and gallbladder infections.  Jekka notes that the root is toxic, and should not be used for anything ingestible[18].  Made weakly as an infusion, this can also be used as a drink for headaches. This is a plant it is unwise to home administer, and using a qualified herbalist is the way to go.
A qualified herbalist has very specific requirements for usage of the plant: the plants must be dried in the sun, carefully, not allowed to dampen at all, so that that the active constituents of the plant remain intact – in this case alkaloids including betonicine, stachydrene and trigonelline.  The action of the plant on the system is sedative, nervine tonic and bitter.  David Hoffman describes its usual applications:
Betony feeds and strengthens the central nervous system… [Its sedative action] finds use in nervous debility associated with anxiety and tension. It will ease headaches and neuralgia if they are of nervous origin… [For the treatment of nervous headache] it combines well with Skullcap, [where when used as an infusion one should] pour a cup of boiling water on 1-2 teaspoonfuls of the dried herb and leave to infuse for 10-15 minutes.  As a Tincture, 2-6 ml should be taken three times a day[19].
As with most herbs, its modern usage is less than its historical usage and more specific.

Modern Industrial Usage
Used as a final hair rinse, an infusion of betony can darken greying hair, and until recently, a small herbal brand in Scotland (now defunct due to the recession) was using betony as its main ingredient in ‘gentleman’s cover-up’ – an equivalent to the Grecian 2000 market niche[20]. Until recently, it was also used as a dye in textiles, producing a rich yellow colour[21].
So – more than you ever wanted to know about Betony…all from a dream, we now have this! I hope you found that as interesting as I did to research!  More herbs soon.

[1] Culpepper’s Complete Herbal, by Nicholas Culpepper (London: Arcturus, 2009), p.48.
[2] Here Culpepper is referring to acid reflux.
[3] Electuary = a medicinal substance mixed with honey or other sweet substance; Betony was often used as a cough syrup this way.
[4] Dropsy = oedema, large swelling related to lymph.
[5] Ague = an illness involving chills, fever and sweating; often used to refer to malaria, but not exclusively.
[6] ‘falling down of the womb’ = prolapsed womb.
[7] Culpepper, p.49.
[8] A Garden of Herbs, by Agnes Walker (Argyll, Scotland: Argyll Publishing, 2003), p.17.
[9] The book Walker is referencing here is Maud Grieve’s  A Modern Herbal (London: Tiger Books International, 1992).  This book is in some circles more highly regarded and seen as more accurate, historically, for folk practice, than the more famous Culpepper.
[10] Walker is referencing Mary Beith’s influential study Healing Threads (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1995), which was very thoroughly and closely researched.  Ms Beith uncovered lots of confusions within collations of early herblore, and her book is well worth reading.
[11] He wrote 2 relevant books: The first and second parts of the Herbal…with the third parte (London, 1568), and Libellus de Re Herbaria 1538 and The Names of Herbes 1548 (London: Ray Society, 1965).
[12] Memory, Wisdom and Healing: The History of Domestic Plant Medicine, by Gabrielle Hatfield (Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing, 1999), p.56.
[13] If you would like to read more of his diary, it’s in print: Notes from Diary of George Ridpath, Minister of Stitchel, 1755-1761, edited with notes and introduction by Sir James Balfour Paul (Edinburgh, printed by Constable for Scottish History Society, 1922).
[14] Hatfield, p.73.
[15] None of my practicing pagan friends wanted to be quoted directly or identified, so I’ve just passed on what anecdotal usages they told me of, uncheckable, and left it at that.  Annoying in an essay otherwise peppered with footnotes, but that’s the nature of interviewing people - sometimes they want to be IDed, sometimes not!
[16] The New Book of Herbs, by Jekka McVicar (London: Dorling Kindersley, 2004),p.245.
[17] Ibid.
[18] McVicar, p.245.
[19] The New Holistic Herbal, by David Hoffman, (London: Element, 1990), p.179.
[20] Uses of Wood Plants, by Silas Tooghie (London: HerbLore SmallPress, 2002), p.83.
[21] McVicar, p.245.

No comments:

Post a Comment