The chequered story of betony

Nature: Grace Corne looks at the very chequered history of the betony.

Little plants of betony are now appearing in various places nearby, and these will be attractive in a week or two when the deadnettle-like pink flowers appear. The leaves are deeply but evenly toothed and easy to identify.

Betony is a plant with a very chequered history. It can only be assumed that initially it was mistaken for another, and all manner of extraordinary marvels were attributed to it. The physician to the Emperor Augustus recommended it for 47 different illnesses (later amended to 29). The extremely eminent physicians Dioscorides and Galen were very enthusiastic about its medicinal properties and they were so influential nobody dared to question their work for many years. Betony was equally revered by the Anglo-Saxons and even at the end of the seventeenth century it was described as “Cephalick, Epatick, Splenetick, Thoracick, Uterine, Vulnerary and Diuretick.” It seems quite sad that it was eventually found to have few of those medicinal properties.

Betony often appears in churchyards where it was deliberately planted, as at one time it was thought to have the power to protect against witchcraft. Time and again it was recommended for the treatment of mental illness, particularly for those “that be ferfull,” and those who suffered from nightmares.

Having survived a spell of being largely ignored betony eventually found what is probably its proper place in herbal history. It was discovered that the leaves give off an unusual smell and those who gathered them began to feel strange or dizzy. In the Middle Ages the plant had been prescribed ‘for those short of breath’, and the current use is exactly the same. Throat infections, asthma, and liver problems are treated with a ‘tea’ made with the leaves, as are nervous diseases and rheumatism. The early idea that the plant had the ability to prevent drunkenness did prove to be incorrect. The leaves, if powdered and dried, have the ability to provoke sneezing, so have been used as a substitute for snuff.