I’ve used motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca), a member of the Mint (Lamiaceae) Family for myself and for others. But I actually had never journeyed to the plant to see what kind of information it might offer until it came into flower this past week.
I find motherwort to be a beautiful plant—providing part comic relief while also looking like a woman warrior. The way its leaves radiate outward and upward toward the top of its stem, its pinkish flowers encircling the stems at increments toward the top—that’s the look that strikes me as comical, in a dignified sort of way. But it’s quick to put the brakes on there. Care must be taken when examining the flowers lest the plant “bristle” at you. Under the leaves, though, it’s maybe one of the softest plants there is, with a downiness that I’ve not encountered elsewhere. Like any good mama, she has a soft side and a prickly side—and “wears” both of them well.
In herbal circles, it’s sometimes said that Americans crave sweetness because we are surrounded by (or surround ourselves by?) a lot of bitterness. That said, bitter herbs, historically and culturally, can be used to help humans cope with the bitterness we all encounter at different times in our lives. I was curious about the level of bitter in a mature, flowering motherwort versus one that has not yet reached its flowering potential. I tried a piece of leaf from each and found the leaf from the mature plant all the more bitter by an order of magnitude.
Like many other plants this year, motherwort is blooming almost a month ahead of when she bloomed last year. Motherwort in flower—this is the time to gather the aerial parts and chop them, place them in a jar and cover them with brandy to make a tincture.
After drawing her top portion, I brought a small upper leaf inside and held it in my mouth for a long time, occasionally turning it over with my tongue as I meditated on motherwort. Fairly quickly, I felt a calm come over my solar plexus, and an expansiveness set in there as well as in my lungs. I could breathe more deeply than I had a few moments earlier. I also felt something of the fearlessness of the plant and wonder how much it might, on a psychic level, help people to overcome fear. Another message was that it’s good anytime of year, but most effective for women’s cycles while the plant itself is cycling through its blooms, generally May to September.
When I began to chew the leaf—which maintained its shape and sturdiness until I began to chew—I felt a back-of-throat bitterness that was ultimately soothing along with a faint, faint sweetness.
Global History of Use
The early Greeks gave motherwort to pregnant women suffering from anxiety. This use continued and gave the herb the name mother wort, or “mother’s herb.” Its other prominent action is on the heart, giving it the species name cardiaca or the Greek kardiaca, or heart. Leonurus comes from the Greek leon for “lion” and ouros for “tail,” as the plant was thought to resemble the tail of a lion. There is an old tale about a town whose water source is a stream flowing through banks of motherwort. Many of the townspeople lived to be 130 years old and recall one who reportedly lived to 300 years. In ancient China, motherwort was reputed to promote longevity. In Europe, motherwort first became known as a treatment for cattle diseases. Colonists introduced motherwort into North America, and the 19th century Eclectics recommended it as a menstruation promoter and aid to expelling the afterbirth (suppressed lochia). They did not consider it a heart remedy at all. The Cherokees used the herb as a sedative for nervous afflictions. In the Victorian Language of Flowers it symbolizes concealed love, all this according to Susun Weed’s Herbalpedia.
Motherwort still tends to be a woman’s herb, though its cardiotonic activity for people whose heart issues stem from anxiety makes it useful for men as well. Herbalist Matthew Wood in The Earthwise Herbal: A Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants, writes, “Herbalist Matthew Becker notes that motherwort drains excessive heat from the upper part of the body associated with a red face, excessive emotionality (not anger), hyperthyroidism, heart palpitations, and high blood pressure. It is especially appropriate for women who are nervous, anxious, move too quickly to thoughts, emotions, or actions that are not thought out.” I find this interesting as, in the flowering plant, the leaves in the upper portion of the aerial parts have a purplish tint that disappears as you follow the leaves down the stem. The stems, too, are also purplish.
Wood also mentions that herbalist William LeSassier “associated [motherwort] with a hollow, caved-in chest, odd shapes in the sternum, and scoliosis.” This could explain some of the expansiveness I felt, first in my solar plexus, then in my chest.
Motherwort’s effects on the female reproductive system cannot be denied. One of the indications my teacher gave was for menses with heavy clots. Among women, clots may be common, but they are not normal. They represent stagnated blood, kind of like an internal mobile bruise. Menstrual blood generally should be bright, not dark, and as clear as possible of clots.
One remedy for this is to take motherwort (a dropper of tincture, three times a day) beginning on the day of ovulation and continuing to the day of onset. Given that bitter herbs act on the liver, and liver governs flow, I found motherwort to be useful in this regard, though I used it through the first day of onset to assist with cramps. (Clearing clots can actually help to ease cramps, which are caused by the pressure of blood flowing through the os of the cervix.) This is repeated for three cycles. I would also say that bitters tend to be cooling, so women who generally run cold may find that they need to temper the motherwort with warming herbs.
Because motherwort is an emmenagogue, it should not be used by women during pregnancy. That said, it can be used early in labor to help with the pains. It should not be used consistently right after labor as it can prolong bleeding before the uterus has clamped down. But after that has happened, new mothers may benefit from its calming effect. Likewise, women who are flooding during menses should not take motherwort as it may increase the flow even more.
Given its incredible bitterness—even though I personally love the taste!—it’s better to use in tincture form than as an infusion. Again, the tincture is best made with fresh aerial parts.