Betony: cultivation & uses

Regina
Regina
Regina
Regina

I studied horticultural sciences at university and in my free time you can find me in my own patch of land, growing anything with roots. I am particularly passionate about self-sufficiency and seasonal food.

Favourite fruit: quince, cornelian cherry and blueberries
Favourite vegetables: peas, tomatoes and garlic

Betony has long been regarded as an important medicinal plant in Europe. Learn more about this bee-friendly perennial here.

Flowering purple betony in field
Wood betony is an ancient medicinal plant [Photo: Jaco Visser/ Shutterstock.com]

Betony was once a valuable medicinal plant in European herbal medicine. Today its pleasing purple-red blooms are a magnet for bees and other pollinators. Find out more about Stachys officinalis’ medicinal properties as well as how to cultivate, propagate and care for it in this article.

Betony: origin and properties

Betony (Betonica officinalis Syn. Stachys officinalis), also known as wood betony, purple betony, common hedgenettle, or bishop’s wort, is an herbaceous perennial belonging to the Lamiaceae family. It is closely related to hedge woundwort (Stachys sylvatica) and Chinese artichoke (Stachys affinis) and can be found in meadows, sparse forests and amongst bushes throughout Europe and the Caucasus. Though it is no longer popular in modern day medicine, common hedgenettle was an important traditional herbal medicine in Europe and Egypt up until the Middle Age where it was used to treat a variety of ailments.

Wood betony grows to around 40 to 60 cm high and has square, slightly hairy stems, as is typical of plants in the Lamiaceae family. Betony leaves are oval with scalloped edges and have short stalks that lay flat against the stem. Before flowering, the leaves form a circle at the base of the plant, known as a basal rosette; the leaves on the flowering shoots sit opposite each other. Betony flowers are densely packed and wrap around the stalk with numerous small, red-purple to white labiate flowers. In late summer, the flowers produce seed heads with four fruits per pollinated flower. Pollinators such as bees and butterflies visit common hedgenettle from June to August when it is in bloom to collect nectar and small amounts of pollen.

Common hedgenettle leaves
Before flowering, common hedgenettle forms what is known as a basal rosette of leaves [Photo: Kabar/ Shutterstock.com]

Growing betony: where and how

Betony thrives in a sunny to semi-shady location in humus-rich, loamy to clayey, but well-drained soil. It is drought tolerant and needs a moderate amount of nutrients.

You can purchase Stachys officinalis as potted plants from a nursery and plant them out in spring or late autumn. Growing wood betony from seed is possible, albeit quite time-consuming. This is partly because betony seeds need cold stratification, meaning they need a longer period of winter-like temperatures in order to germinate. Therefore, when grown outdoors, the seeds are sown between September and December and germinate once temperatures rise in spring.

It is also possible to sow betony seeds indoors all year round on a bright, warm windowsill. To do this, first soak the seeds in lukewarm water for 24 hours. Then store them in damp sand or kitchen towel, ideally wrapped in a zip lock bag, in the refrigerator for about eight weeks. Next, plant the seeds in a container. Simply fill some pots or trays with low-nutrient growing soil, such as our Plantura Organic Herb & Seedling Compost, and moisten slightly. Then sow the seeds 4 to 5 cm deep in the substrate and keep at room temperature. Remember, germination takes a long time – it can take anywhere between 30 and 80 days before the first seedlings appear. During this time, make sure the soil remains moist.

In spring or late autumn, you can plant the young plants directly into a bed or in a pot with a capacity of at least 5 litres. First, remove any unwanted weeds and loosen up the soil. At this point, you can enrich low-nutrient soils with mature compost. Then dig sufficiently large holes spaced 25 to 30 cm apart and place the young plants in them. Fill the holes with soil, gently press it down and water.

Summary: Planting betony

  • Prepare soil by removing weeds, loosening the soil and working in compost if necessary
  • Dig a sufficiently large hole, space plants 25 – 30 cm apart
  • Place the betony plants in the holes, fill with substrate and press down gently
  • Water well after planting
Purple betony flowering
Wood betony is a bushy and hardy perennial [Photo: Kazakov Maksim/ Shutterstock.com]

Caring for betony

Betony is undemanding and easy to care for. Watering is only necessary in rare cases of prolonged drought once plants have established themselves. To encourage flowering and strong growth, fertilise your betony plants in spring with a plant-based fertiliser, such as our Plantura All Purpose Plant Food, or mature compost. In our latitudes, wood betony is completely hardy down to -5°C and so does not need any winter protection. The plant dies back in late autumn. Before new shoots appear in the following spring, cut off the plant’s dead parts close to the ground. You can propagate bishop’s wort vegetatively by dividing it with a spade in autumn.

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Stachys officinalis medicinal uses and health benefits

Betony leaves are cut and dried when the plant is in bloom between July and August. Usually, dried betony is drunk as a medicinal tea. The leaves contain up to 15% tannins and have a bitter taste. They are primarily used medicinally to support haemostasis, digestion and liver function. Stachys officinalis can also be used to treat headaches or toothaches, gall bladder or kidney stones, gastrointestinal issues and even respiratory diseases like asthma. In homeopathy, it is used to treat gastrointestinal complaints as well as to support liver and pancreas function.

However, betony’s use is not limited to medicinal purposes. You can also use the herb to dye wool and fabrics yellow.

Betony used as medicinal plant
Betony is a medicinal plant and can also be used to dye wool and other fabrics [Photo: Lipatova Maryna/ Shutterstock.com]

Is betony poisonous?

While betony is not poisonous, it can cause nausea, vomiting and even hallucinations if consumed in large quantities. As a precaution, pregnant women and nursing mothers should avoid taking betony.

Would you like to read more about another bee-friendly medicinal plant? Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is also a member of the Lamiaceae family and is especially useful for treating heart and circulatory issues.

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