Thursday, June 19, 2014

Wood betony (Stachys officinalis)

The betony flowering season is drawing to an end here in central Texas. Wood betony (Stachys officinalis;  Family Lamiaceae – Mint family) was a very popular herb in the Middle Ages. In all my postings on herbs, I attempt to include a variety of images of the herbs. Generally I will either start or end with photographs and will show historical plant images from herbals in more or less chronological order. Most of the images will NOT be from Anglo-Saxon sources. Only one of the four extant manuscripts of the Old English Herbarium is illustrated (Cotton Vitellius C iii), and public domain images are available for only a few of the herbs depicted in Cotton Vitellius C iii.

Wood betony (Stachys officinalis) growing in central Texas in July 2013. The plants were started from seed in early 2013 and did not flower at all in 2013. Photo by Aly Abell.

Wood betony (Stachys officinalis) growing in central Texas in on May 24, 2014. The plants were started from seed in early 2013 and were first noted flowering on 19 April 2014. Photo by Aly Abell.

 In addition to actual plant images, my herb postings will sometimes include other images related to the plant under consideration. The picture below illustrates folklore about the discovery of the revered herb betony. A small image of the herb is included, but the focus in this illustration is the mythical figure of Asclepius.

Asclepius discovering betony, from the Manuscrit Latin 6862 (MS Lat. 6862), folio 18v, Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Public domain.

 Much has been written about betony over the years, perhaps most notably a monograph attributed to Antonius Musa and generally included with manuscripts of the herbal of Pseudo-Apuleius. In the Old English Herbarium, the Musa treatise on betony is presented as the first chapter of the whole work, with no break to set it apart from the chapters attributed to Pseudo-Apuleius and Dioscorides. The original Latin version included 47 remedies using betony. The Old English Herbarium reduces the compilation to a still-impressive list of 29 remedies.

Betony, from the De herba vettonica libellus section of the codex Vossianus Latinus Quarto No. 9 (VLQ 9), folio 13v, Universiteitsbibliotheek Leiden. This Latin manuscript dates from sixth-century Italy and is the oldest surviving text of the Pseudo-Apuleius herbal complex.

Even today many blog postings and other articles have been written about betony. Perhaps because of its former prominence in the materia medica or perhaps due to traditional beliefs about its power over evil spirits, betony remains alluring even though it is not frequently used in herbal medicine today. In this blog I will focus on the remedies described in the Old English Herbarium and evaluate whether betony may have actually provided some relief for the conditions listed in that text.

When evaluating Anglo-Saxon herbs, I will use the following criteria to determine whether a particular use of the herb is supported by evidence:
(1)    Scientific evidence that the herb works for this purpose in humans (clinical trials of humans)
(2)    Scientific evidence that the herb could work for this purpose in humans (for example, animal trials, analysis of chemical properties, demonstration of effects in vitro)
(3)    Documentation that the herb was recommended for this purpose in the past by persons from a different cultural tradition
(4)    Documentation that the herb is recommended for this purpose in the present time or recent historical past by knowledgeable herbalists or other health practitioners, anywhere in the world

For most herbs, evidence of type 1 is very rare because it can be difficult to get funding to conduct this sort of work. Any documentation I find for evidence of type 2 will usually come from secondary sources, as most modern research in healing properties of herbs seems to be published in journals with expensive paywalls. Type 3 evidence might not be very frequent for Anglo-Saxon herbs, because much of the herbal information in Anglo-Saxon texts shares common roots with other European traditions and the plants are not always native to areas outside Europe or the Mediterranean basin. The trick for evaluating evidence of type 4 is to determine whether modern herbalists or other practitioners are really recommending the herb based on their own observations of its beneficial effect, or whether the stated healing properties are simply being carried over from historical documents. Some herbal books published today are based largely on information from older herbals, with the original source material dating back hundreds of years.

Betony, from the Epistola de herba vetonica section of the Manuscrit Latin 6862 (MS Lat. 6862), folio 20v, Bibliothèque Nationale de France. This Latin manuscript is a ninth-century example of the Pseudo-Apuleius herbal complex. Public domain.
Betony, from Liber IV of De Materia Medica by Dioscorides, Manuscrit Grec 2179 (MS Grec 2179), folio 71r, Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Plant identifications for this ninth-century manuscript in Greek are taken from Bonnet, Edmond. 1903. Essai d'identification des plantes médicinales mentionnées par Dioscoride: d'après les peintures d'un manuscrit de la Bibliothèque nationale de Paris (Ms. Grec No. 2179). Janus 8: 169-77, 225-32, 281-85. Bonnet identifies this image as Betonica, and probably B. officinalis (now known as Stachys officinalis). Public domain.

 From the table of contents in the Old English Herbarium, here are the 29 remedies based on betony. The main text is from the Cockayne translation. Comments in [brackets] are clarifications from the translation by Anne Van Arsdall.

1. For monstrous nocturnal visitors and frightful sights and dreams. [nightmares]
2. If a mans head be broken. [shattered skull]
3. For sore of eyes.
4. For sore of ears.
5. For dimness of eyes.
6. For bleared eyes.
7. For strong blood-running from the nose.
8. For tooth ache.
9. For sore of side.
10. For sore of the broad of the loins. [pain in the loins]
11. For sore of belly. [stomach pain]
12. In case a mans inwards be too costive. [constipation]
13. In case blood gush up through a mans mouth.
14. In case a man have a mind not to be drunken.
15. In case a pustule is going to settle on a man. [boil on the face]
16. In case a man be inwardly ruptured. [internal rupture]
17. In case a man become tired with much riding or walking.
18. In case a man be out of breath or feel nausea.
19. That a mans meat may easily digest. [good digestion of food]
20. In case a man cannot retain his meat. [not able to keep food down]
21. For sore of inwards, or if they be swollen. [abdominal pain or swelling]
22. For taking of poison.
23. For bite of snake.
24. Again, for bite of snake.
25. For bite of mad dog.
26. In case a mans throat be sore or any part of his neck.
27. For sore of loins, and if a mans thighs ache.
28. For the hot fever. [high fever]
29. For foot disease. [gout]

The best-supported uses appear to be #2, #19, and #20 (shown in purple font in the list above). Remedy #2 is for a “broken” head, which could be interpreted literally as a fractured skull or more figuratively as a headache. The original Latin text (Howald and Sigerist, 1927) appears to be for the former; it directs that the betony preparation be placed directly on the head wound. The Old English version directs that powdered betony should be placed in beer to drink. As suggested by Van Arsdall, this oral mode of administration appears more suitable for a headache than for a physical injury to the head. If we accept that the Anglo-Saxons came to regard betony as a headache remedy, then ample support can be found in modern herbal practice. Herbalist Jim McDonald considers betony as a useful component of formulas for migraine and tension headaches. He cites examples from his own practice and knowledge in which betony was effective in treating conditions of the head. Betony contains several active components including alkaloids, betaine, tannins, glycosides, and volatile oil. The theoretical mode of action by which these compounds could ease headaches is by dilating blood vessels and relaxing and smoothing facial muscles to relieve pain.

The mild bitterness and other properties of betony also make it useful as a digestive aid (remedies #19 and #20), according to Jim McDonald and Phytosalus. The Plants For A Future (PFAF) database notes the overall tonic effect of betony and states that it can stimulate the digestive system.

Betony, from the De herba vettonica liber section of Harley 1585, folio 14r. This Latin example of the Pseudo-Apuleius herbal complex was produced in the Netherlands, S. (Mosan region) or England in the third quarter of the 12th century. The British Library has made images from the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts available under the Public Domain mark.

Betony, from the first known printed edition of the Herbarium of Pseudo-Apuleius. This book was printed in Rome by Johannes Philippus de Lignamine in 1481 or 1482. The text and images were said to be based on the ninth-century manuscript from the abbey of Monte Cassino (Codex Casinensis 97). The first edition, with a dedication to Cardinal Francesco Gonzaga, is in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (BSB) under the title Herbarium Apuleii Platonici mit Widmungsbrief des Autors an Kardinal Francesco Gonzaga bzw. an Kardinal Giuliano della Rovere. The full-size image may be viewed at page [21]-7 of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (BSB) online text viewer. Permanent link at

 For several more of the 29 remedies in the Old English Herbarium, there are known properties of betony that suggest a possible way in which the herb could alleviate symptoms. For these remedies (shown in green font in the list of remedies), the evidence is less clear than for #2, #19, and #20 discussed above.
Betony, from The herball, or, Generall historie of plantes by John Gerard, 1636 edition, p. 714.

Betony, from Illustrations of the British Flora by W. H. Fitch, 1924 edition, p. 831. Downloaded from  and licensed under the GNU Free Document License.

For the remaining betony remedies included in the Old English Herbarium, I identified little or no rational basis. Betony and other aspects of the specified remedy may have still exerted a benefit through the placebo effect or other psychological mechanisms.

Warning: The discussion of herbs in this blog should not be interpreted as advice to take herbs for a particular medical condition or for general health improvement. Before using any herb, you should consult with a qualified health professional to determine if that herb is suitable for you.

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