There are some herbs that I would hate to be without in my dispensary and Motherwort is most definitely one of them. Motherwort, Leonorus cardiaca, is a member of the mint family (Lamiaceae) and has their characteristic square stems and opposite leaves though, unlike most other mints, the leaves are deeply toothed and cut into three pointed segments. The pinky flowers appear in whorls around the stem and the calyxes are very prickly so beware when harvesting!
This is the second year I have grown Motherwort but the first in which it has really flourished as it was kept in pots last year and was a little cramped. I only have three plants but it grows large and tall so this is enough for a fairly good harvest – enough for about three litres of tincture and a small amount of dried herb.
Motherwort has been used in herbal medicine since antiquity and was thought to have been a popular remedy with the Celts. It used to grow quite freely in the wild here in the UK but now its much harder to find, growing it yourself is really the best option if you want to ensure a harvest. Gerard, writing in 1597 said of Motherwort, “It joys to be among rubbish, in stony and other rough places, especially about Oxford.”
With this herb, the clues to it’s most popular uses lie in its names, both common and Latin. It’s been known as Motherwort for centuries as it’s often considered a women’s herb, suitable not just for mothers but women of any age from puberty to menopause. Culpepper tells us, “it makes women joyful mothers of children, and settles their wombs as they should be, therefore we call it Motherwort.” It is helpful for painful periods whether the cause is muscular tension or congestion as it is both anti-spasmodic and dispersive. It is considered an emmenagogue as it helps promote delayed menstruation and is useful in labour. Potter’s informs us it, “is especially valuable in cases of female weakness and hysteria, acting as a tonic to the generative organs and allaying nervous irritability.” In modern lingo that means ‘good for PMS’! It is also regularly used for people who feel stressed and restless during the menopause.
The soft pink flowers with their hidden spiky calyxes remind me an archetypal Mother, seemly soft and fluffy but with a very sharp tongue when you cross her or threaten her children.
The second part of its Latin name, cardiaca, refers to its affinity with the heart. The first part, Leonorous, is said to have come about due to the plants resemblance to a lion’s tail but also because Leo was seen as the ruler of the heart. Culpepper wrote, “Venus owns this herb and it is under Leo” indicating that it was a female tonic with particular uses for the heart.
Dr Christopher believed it “vies for the honour of being the best heart tonic known. It calms and supports the heart and nerves and may be used in large doses.” It helps slow and regulate the heartbeat so is useful for tachycardia and has a mild vasodilating effect. Of course it goes without saying that any heart condition needs to be checked out by a professional and consult a herbalist first if you are already on heart medication.
It is particularly indicated for palpitations where the cause is anxiety and nervousness as Motherwort is also a useful nervine. It has been used for sleeplessness, anxiety, nervous tension and feelings of emotional instability. It has also been used to help people with cold hands and feet as its dispersive qualities help equalise peripheral circulation and heat. By relaxing constriction, Motherwort allows energy to move more freely around the body. Considered a useful herb for hyperthyroidism it treats many of the symptoms of this condition; palpitations, anxiety, restlessness, tremors etc.
Motherwort contains essential oils which contribute to its dispersive quality, tannins which help make it a useful uterine tonic along with alkaloids, iridoides and cardiac glycosides which contribute to its nervine and heart tonic properties.
Bees, who are well known for their sophisticated tastes, adore it.
At one time Motherwort was considered a useful diaphoretic, meaning it induces sweating and helps cool a fever. However as diaphoretic herbs are best taken as hot infusions, and Motherwort is not the most pleasant tasting of herbs, this is not something I have used it for myself. It might be worth the effort though if you can stomach it as an old country saying quoted in Bartram’s informs us, “Drink Motherwort tea and live to be a source of continuous astonishment and frustration to waiting heirs.”
Being aromatic and pungent it helps to disperse stuck energy, this is why it is so useful in delayed menstruation, retention of the afterbirth, fevers and poor digestion – it moves. The combination of bitter and pungent tastes make it particularly suitable for ‘kapha’ type people who can tend to be overweight and a little sluggish. The relaxing, nervine qualities can make it good for Pitta or Vata types too, depending on their individual picture.
I don’t dry a huge amount of Motherwort as I really don’t use a lot in teas but I do use it as a compress for menstrual cramps. This is only really suitable to use if you are at home but it can prove very effective in easing pain, spasm and discomfort. All you need to do is make a strong tea of dried Motherwort and soak a flannel in it. Wring the excess liquid out and lie the flannel over the abdomen or lower back, depending on where the pain is most intense, and relax with a hot water bottle on top for a short while. Refresh the flannel with more tea and repeat a few times until you feel better.
I believe that I may have discovered another use for this remarkable plant this year as it’s proved incredibly popular as a cat toy. Perhaps the temptation to chase the lion’s tail is just too great…