Wood Betony




Common Name: Wood Betony, Lousewort, Elephant’s head, Parrot’s beak, Indian warrior, Beefsteak plant, Bishop’s wort, Canada lousewort – The etymology of betony is obscure. It may be geographic, referring to the Vettones (Latin betonica), an early Celtic people of the Iberian Peninsula. It may also be linguistic in that the Celtic bew meaning ‘head’ combined with ton meaning ‘good’ would suggest that ‘bew-ton’ would ameliorate a headache. This species grows in wooded areas and is thus differentiated as ‘wood’ to distinguish from the swamp betony.

Scientific Name: Pedicularis canadensisPediculus is Latin for little louse; the generic implication is that the wood betony may have been used against lice. The original taxonomic speciation was in Canada; the Latinized name canadensis was assigned to indicate this provenance.

Potpourri:  The wood betony is a very distinctive flower that is native to North America; it is readily recognized and remembered as its myriad descriptive names attest. This may be the reason for one of the more egregious cases of mistaken identity that pervades the literature of natural medicinal plants. It has the same name as one of the most well-known herbs of Europe, Stachys officinalis, the other, Old World wood betony, a perennial grass that has a purple spiked flower at the top (Stachys means ‘ear of grain’ in Greek) that is common in open grasslands and wooded areas in Eurasia and North Africa. Its beneficence as a herbal remedy is so well established that it is reflected its species name; officinalis is Latin for ‘of a storeroom’ from which the English word officinal, meaning ‘kept in stock by druggists’ derives. Since the two flowers are separated by the Atlantic Ocean and bear no relation to each other, there must be some reason for the transference of the name to the New World. The fons et origio of the dual identity is likely that P. canadensis became manifest to early colonists as a potent drug after having learned of its medicinal use by Native Americans; they accordingly gave it the same name as their beneficent home-country herbal, S. officinalis. Both wood betonies have similar reddish-purple vivid coloration which may have contributed to the botanical namesake; the old became the new.

The Old World wood betony S. officinalis has been a renowned herbal for over two millennia. The chief physician of the Roman Emperor Augustus attested that it was a proven cure for forty-seven different maladies. A Roman proverb advises that one should “sell your coat and buy betony.” By the middle ages, mystical powers were attributed to its use; in the 16th Century, Erasmus of Rotterdam asserted that the herb was ‘good against fearful visions” while ‘driving away devils and despair.’ The phantasmagoria extended to animals. Snakes were said to fight to the death and kill each other if placed in a ring of wood betony, there being no means of escape. Wounded harts supposedly would eat wood betony for its remarkable restorative properties. The inimitable English herbalist John Gerard, author of the 1597 Great Herball  offered the general guidance that it ‘preserveth the lives and bodies of men from the danger of epidemical diseases’ and was good for jaundice, palsy, dropsy, head troubles, convulsions and gout, among a great many other things. Throughout the Middle Ages and well into more recent times, wood betony prescriptions have been extensive, ranging from ‘a cure for the bites of mad dogs’ and ‘good for those that are wearied by travel’ to ‘the green herb bruised or the juice, applied to any inward hurt, or outward wound in body or head will quickly heal and close it up.’ The 1666 edition of Medicina Britannica provided that “the most obstinate headaches cured by daily breakfasting for a month or six weeks on a decoction of Betony made with new milk and strained.” It was the king of herbal remedies.

The New World wood betony P. canadensis was not nearly as well established as the old. This is due in no small part to the marginal acculturation of the Native Americans that extended only to an oral history for the conveyance of historical practices. According to D. Moorman in North American Medicinal Plants, betony was widely used by a number of tribal groupings not only to treat maladies, but also for aphrodisiacal and veterinary purposes, some of which are likely whimsical. The Cherokee used it as an antidiarrheal, especially for “bloody discharge from bowels,” in addition to the more common uses as a cough medicine, a dermatological and a gastrointestinal aid. The Iroquois, on the other hand, used it as a heart medicine and as orthopedic steam bath for sore legs. The Meskwaki and the Ojibwa used it as a love potion – a sylvan cantharis of sorts. According to an oral account of a member of the latter tribe “the root was added to some dish that was cooking without the knowledge of people who were to eat it, and, if they had quarreled some, then they would become lovers again.” However, the interviewee reported that it was frequently misused. From the veterinary perspective, the Cherokee used it in dog beds to rid the puppies of lice and the Menominee added chopped up root to make their ponies fat and to be “vicious to all but the owner.” What is clear from this accounting is that the North American wood betony was used extensively by numerous tribes for a wide range of purposes.

When the New World was settled by the colonists from the Old World, P. canadensis became conflated with S. officinalis so that the properties of the latter were conveyed to the former. The Pennsylvania apothecary and printer Christopher Sauer wrote of the efficacy of S. officinalis in The Compendious Herbal published serially between 1762 and 1778. In a recent revival of the book William Weaver notes that “there are several native betonies, and those with the leaves and flowers most similar to the European plant were evidently used as substitutes.” The uses of native wood betony by the colonists must have been based in part on what they learned from the Native Americans about P. canadensis and in part about what they remembered from their previous deep-seated appreciation of S. officinalis. There is one anomaly with this association that warrants special mention, as it is the most noted of the etiology of betony. This concerns the origin of the common name lousewort and the reference to lice in the genus name Pedicularis (little louse in Latin). The National Audobon Society Field Guide to North American Wildflowers provides the detail that both the common and genus names “refer to the misconception once held by farmers that cattle and sheep became infested with lice when grazing on the plants.” This attribute applies only to the New World wood betony and must therefore somehow derive from the practices of the Native Americans. However, the only known citation is for the use of the plant to prevent the infestation of lice in dogs and not the attraction of lice to other animals. This bit of folklore will necessarily remain unsettled, and the alternative name of lousewort will unabashedly persist.

The original Old World wood betony is available commercially as an herbal remedy primarily directed at headaches and as an astringent. Some chemical analysis has been performed to indicate that S. officinalis has a tannin content of about 15 percent, which would endorse its use for vulnerary applications. There is also some indication that the plant contains glycosides that act to reduce blood pressure, the hypotensive effect could therefore alleviate headaches. The New World wood betony P. canadensis, though not sold as an herbal commercially, is afforded a number of chemical constituents including betulinic acid, caffeine and tannin though these have louche reliability. One reason for uncertainty is that the lousewort is a member of Orobanchaceae, the broomrape family, which consists of plants that are either holoparasitic or hemiparasitic (fully obligate or partially parasitic) on other plants, attaching to the host’s roots with an appendage called an haustorium, which is similar in form and function to the haustoria of fungi. Thus their chemical constituency depends in part on the extractions from the host plant. However, both types of wood betony were used for a wide range of ailments by both the Europeans and the Native Americans without any known harmful side effects and with some rather convincing testimonial accounts. Their quiddities must be sound.