Motherwort: Learn from the mother’s herb
Genus and Species: Leonurus cardiaca
Common names: Motherwort, Lion’s Tail, Heartwort
Energetics: Relaxing, astringent, warming
Properties: Sedative, diaphoretic, nervine (relaxant), cardiac tonic, uterine tonic, uterine stimulant and tonic, emmenagogue, antidepressant, hepatic
Degree of Action: Second
Tissue States: Constriction, atrophy, cold
Key Uses: Hyperthyroidism (with heart symptoms: tachycardia, heart palpitations), hypertension, anemia, cachexia, debility, nervous weakness, amenorrhea, dysmenorrhea, spastic colic, menopause-related hot flashes, night sweats, and anxiety, pregnancy and motherhood-related anxiety
An introductory note:
I am choosing to write with the pronouns ki and kin in place of it and they, commonly used in English to refer to inanimate objects. Botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Robin Wall Kimmerer writes:
“Ki” to signify a being of the living Earth. Not “he” or “she,” but “ki.” So that when we speak of Sugar Maple, we say, “Oh that beautiful tree, ki is giving us sap again this spring.” And we’ll need a plural pronoun, too, for those Earth beings. Let’s make that new pronoun “kin.” So we can now refer to birds and trees not as things, but as our earthly relatives. On a crisp October morning we can look up at the geese and say, “Look, kin are flying south for the winter. Come back soon.”
If you’d like to know more about the rationale and application of these pronouns, I encourage you to read Kimmerer’s full essay here:
The early Greeks gave Motherwort to pregnant women suffering from anxiety. This use continued and gave the herb the name Motherwort, or “mother’s herb.” Motherwort also acts on the heart, giving ki 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 resembles the tail of a lion. And, like many other mint family nervines, ki doctrinal signature of central flowers and the spiky appearance of the seed capsules suggest ki use as a nervine and antispasmodic. In Europe, ki also became associated with longevity, driving away wicked spirits, and treating spastic colic, epilepsy, fever with nervousness and delirium, spinal irritation, disturbed sleep, and restlessness. Culpepper classed motherwort among the “loosening medicines,” i.e. those “having a relaxant effect on muscles, tendons, ligaments, and membranes and capsules over organs, when these are distended or stretched by dryness, cold, fullness of humours or swellings.” Thus Motherwort was frequently used for amenorrhea from cold, anxiety, or palpitations. Culpepper wrote of Motherwort:
“Venus owns this herb and it is under Leo. There is no better herb to drive melancholy vapours from the heart, to strengthen it and make the mind cheerful, blithe and merry…It cleansethe the chest of cold phlegm… It is of good use to warm and dry up the cold humours, to digest and disperse them that are settled in the veins, joints and sinews of the body and to help cramps and convulsions.”
The modern clinical uses of Motherwort are surprisingly consistent. Herbalists from New Mexico to New Zealand call on ki to calm heart palpitations caused by anxiety and hyperthyroidism, to bring on delayed or suppressed menstruation, and to ease menopause-related hot flashes, night sweats, and anxiety. As a strikingly beautiful and potent nervine, ki also finds much use for the emotional components and associations related to these conditions, and many herbalists, myself included, have a handful of special stories about Motherwort’s magic in this regard.
Robert Whelan says “I have come to develop a great deal of respect for how much Motherwort can shift a stuck pattern of tension in the heart or in the smooth tissue of the womb. I think that if it is used wisely for the right person it can be a profoundly relaxing and healing herb.”
I have little doubt that I am one of the “right people” for Motherwort. When I first began really paying attention to medicinal plants in an intentional way (read: attempting, in my fumbling way, to converse with kin!), Motherwort was the first plant who spoke clearly to me: “Life’s bitternesses and betrayals are the raw materials that you can choose to transform into sweetness; don’t avoid them.” One of my core experiences of grief is related to the feeling and belief that I haven’t had, and never will have a home on this earth or a loving family I can trust. When I sit beside Motherwort, these feelings are metabolized as tears and a sort of bittersweet acceptance that there is a wisdom greater than I can fathom that is calling me to feel just as I do. I felt goosebumps when I read a description of ki flower essence from Bloesem Remedies :
“For those who don’t feel at home in their family and on earth and easily feel under attack. When it has not been possible to receive the warmth and love of the family and as a result you become hardened, rigid and feel like a stranger on the earth. When you have the feeling that you cannot open your heart in the specific environment you are living in… helps you to stay open to the love and support of family and friends in the here and now. It is particularly good for letting go of the fear of being hurt.”
Perhaps my strong reaction to her is anomalous, but I am of the opinion that Motherwort is a plant whose powerful therapeutic potential for some people is unlocked through direct contact and relationship with her in her green glory of growth and flowering. Kiva Rose expresses a similar sentiment:
“I never knew how amazing this plant really was until I met her in person. I’d tried really nice tinctures from herbalist friends, but often felt very little from the tincture and was generally unimpressed. But this year I grew some…and wow, was I ever surprised. The plants, from seedling to flowering, caught my eye every time I came near them, practically screaming to pay attention to them. And the closer I looked the more I got the impression that this was a plant that wanted to be helpful in some big way…Now she’s flowering like mad and I could seriously just sit at her feel all day listening to her blooming and humming. More recent partakings of Motherwort tinctures have resulted in profoundly lovely results of mood enhancement, PMS banishment and deep calming.”
Kiva Rose further elaborates on her uses, saying Motherwort “eases cramps (including the afterpains of childbirth) & chills out PMS, increases circulation, moves blood which helps move along scanty, stuck menstruation, assists in the healing of some types of vaginal atrophy, improves slow, sluggish digestion…a wonderful herb for postpartum depression and anxiety…I make a formula consisting of equal parts Motherwort, Mugwort and Violet that is especially helpful for frazzled parents, those with adrenal fatigue and women recovering from eating disorders (italics added). I call it Mother Love.”
Indeed, one of my other magical experiences with Motherwort (also aided by Crampbark, Viburnum opulus) has been a gradual healing of the persistent feeling that all foods are toxic, which seemed to manifest as stomach cramps, food intolerances, and food-related anxiety. I’ve spoken with other women who have similar childhood backgrounds (i.e. being sporadically fed mostly convenience foods by negligent, emotionally distant and volatile mothers) and they have experienced similar patterns of “orthorexia” as adults. Some of the beliefs that ride along in this basket-o-trouble include “I’m not worthy to be a mother/ to be nourished. Food must be carefully monitored and guarded against.” I’m curious about Motherwort’s potential in eating disorder recovery, as an adjuvant to mindful eating, therapy, daily gratitudes, and other appropriate interventions. According to Polish researchers in a review of the pharmacology of Motherwort, “a spasmolytic effect on the smooth muscles of the gastrointestinal tract justifies the use… in spastic colic, which results in the weakening of intestinal motility, manifested as digestive disorders, bloating, abdominal pain and recurrent constipation.” These are symptoms I commonly experience, and I will be tracking their progression with more regular use of Motherwort as a digestive bitter acting, perhaps, on both the energetic and physical aspects of digestive wellbeing.
There are very few quality human clinical trials of motherwort. In one recent study, an oil extract of motherwort (4×300 mg capsules daily for 28 days) was administered to 50 patients with a first (22 patients) and second (28 patients) degree of hypertension, and symptoms such as anxiety and sleep disorders. In patients with a first degree of hypertension, a reduction in the symptoms of anxiety, emotional instability, headaches and sleep disorders was achieved. After 21 days, there was a significant decrease in and normalisation of blood pressure (from 145/96 to 130/87), and the patients reported they experienced less fatigue, improved mood and activity. However, their reduction in heart rate (from 81.7 to 75.4) was not statistically significant. A considerable drop in blood pressure (from 153/103 to 142/92) in patients with a second degree of hypertension occurred a week later than the first group. The psycho-emotional condition of the patients (anxiety, emotional lability, headache and sleep disturbances) was improved seven days before their blood pressure lowered. The hypotensive, anxiolytic and calming effect may have been caused by iridoids, while the lack of anti-arrhythmic action may have resulted from the absence of alkaloids in the prepared extract.
Effect of Leonurus cardiaca Oil Extract in Patients with Arterial Hypertension Accompanied by Anxiety and Sleep Disorders
According to a recent review of the phytochemistry and pharmacology of motherwort, “compounds belonging to the group of terpenes (iridoids, diterpenes and ursolic acid), alkaloids (leonurin) and phenylpropanoids (lavandulifolioside) may be responsible for the diverse biological activity of Leonurus cardiaca.” Leonurine is attributed to the uterotonic properties, and ursolic acid to the anti-inflammatory.
Motherwort, a cardiotonic, has an observable beneficial action on the heart and blood vessels but does not contain cardiac glycosides. How such plants work is an area of pharmacologic debate, but flavones appear to be involved in their beneficial actions.
Hot or cold infusion of 1 oz dried herb to a pint of water, drunk three times a day. Tincture 10 drops – 4 ml 3x a day.
According to Dr. Alschuler, “as a warm preparation, it relieves pelvic congestion and exerts antispasmodic action on the uterus. In cold preparations, it acts more strongly as a digestive tonic (especially on the stomach).” King’s Dispensatory states that externally, it may be used as a fomentation to the bowels in suppressed and painful menstruation. I have tried this when other emmenagogues were not working, and this preparation of motherwort did the trick.
Michael Moore’s Herbal Medical Contraindications lists Motherwort as an oxytocin synergist. The warnings related to Motherwort’s use during pregnancy come from studies on its constituent Leonurine, which has increased tone and contractions in isolated uterus muscle. However, it is worth noting that the German Commission E advises that there are no known contraindications for this herb in pregnancy, and that Motherwort has been used as nervine for anxious pregnant women for many centuries. Herbalist Kathy Eich explains that because Leonurine is an alcohol soluble alkaloid, infusions are safe to use in pregnancy. Motherwort leaves occasionally produce skin dermatitis when touched.