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What is Wood Betony?

By C. Ausbrooks
Updated May 16, 2024
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Wood betony, also known as Bishopwort or simply betony, is a woodland herb native to Europe, particularly England and some parts of Asia. Its habitat is typically forests and copses, although it can be found growing on moors, and occasionally in meadows. It was used by physicians through the middle Ages as a cure-all herbal medicine. The chief physician of Augustus Caesar, Antonius Musa, compiled a treatise in the first century CE stating that the herb cured at least 47 different disorders.

The Romans were not the only admirers of wood betony. An Italian proverb, “Sell your coat and buy betony,” originates from the herb’s reputation as a panacea to cure almost any ill. A saying of the Spaniards, “He has as many virtues as betony,” indicates that they also viewed the herb as having remedial value. English herbalist and apothecary, John Gerard, also favored wood betony, naming it in his 1636 Herbal as “good for ruptures, cramps, and convulsions, and most singular against poison.”

Although the wood betony herb no longer enjoys the exalted status of old, it is still used by modern herbalists to cure a variety of ailments. Most notably, it is known for it’s effectiveness in relieving headaches, head and facial pain, nervous tension, and stress. Its high glycoside content is believed to be responsible for these properties. However, wood betony is also high in tannins, making it highly astringent and useful for treating diarrhea, and mouth and throat problems.

When wood betony flowers in the early summer, the aerial parts of the plant are harvested and dried to be used in medicinal preparations. The most common way to use betony is in an herbal infusion, made by steeping one teaspoon (5 ml) of the dried herb in one cup (250 ml) of boiling water for 15 minutes. The recommended dosage of wood betony infusion is one cup up to three times per day. It is also found in other herbal medicine preparations, such as tinctures, teas, extracts, poultices, mouthwashes, and tonic wines.

Wood betony is also prized for its attractiveness, and is planted in many home gardens as a decorative border perennial. It returns year after year, and grows to a height of up to 24 inches (60 centimeters). The flowers are whorls of white, pink, or purple, although the wild variety of wood betony is often a dark red to purple. The flowers are set upon the end of nearly leafless stems, which grow from a tuft of large, long green leaves springing from the roots. The leaves are rough, covered in fine hairs, and their entire surface contains bitter aromatic oil.

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