Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is a plant that has had longstanding medicinal uses in history, though many of those uses are poorly supported by any evidence in the modern day.
Historically, it has been used to regulate menstrual periods and to alleviate symptoms of menopause, anxiety, rapid heartbeat, and several other conditions, including itching.
Perhaps ironically, the one thing we know is that it’s likely to be unsafe for expectant mothers to take, as it causes uterine cramps, which can lead to miscarriage.
Motherwort: its uses in modern medicine
In modern usage, Motherwort is used to stop bleeding (or to prevent bleeding before it happens). It can also reduce inflammation, and has both antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.
In particular, it is sometimes injected into women’s muscles after obstetric and gynecological surgeries or natural childbirth to reduce bleeding, though it is important to note that most factual research says it needs to be mixed with the likes of oxytocin to have a beneficial effect on bleeding.
As it is rich in antioxidants, it can be taken as a supplement to combat free radicals.
Also unofficially used for…
Anxiety. While research is ongoing, initial research suggests that taking a motherwort tincture orally for 10 days might decrease anxiety.
- Symptoms of menopause.
- Lack of menstrual periods.
- Painful menstrual periods.
- Overactive thyroid.
- High blood pressure. People with untreated high blood pressure, taking an extract of Motherwort orally for 28 days have reported a decrease in blood pressure levels in initial research.
- Heart conditions, including palpitations.
- Alcohol use disorder.
NB: there is currently not enough evidence to recommend taking Motherwort for any of these conditions.
Side effects can include: diarrhea; irritation of the stomach; and uterine bleeding when taken orally. However, it is likely safe when taken responsibly by most people – see Warnings.
Healthcare providers may give Motherwort as a shot. In such circumstances, it is possibly safe for most people. Side effects can include: skin reddening; rash; itchiness; chills; fever; nausea; and stomach pain.
Do not take Motherwort by mouth during pregnancy unless specifically advised to do so by a medical professional. The uterine contractions it can cause may lead to miscarriage.
Do not take Motherwort while taking heart medications like beta-blockers, or blood thinners like Warfarin, without consulting your doctor.
Avoid taking Motherwort in conjunction with sedatives like clonazepam (Klonopin), lorazepam (Ativan), phenobarbital (Donnatal), zolpidem (Ambien) – as it may exacerbate their actions and lead to excessive drowsiness.
Consuming excess Motherwort could result in diarrhea, uterine bleeding, and stomach pain.
Motherwort: History of an herb
There’s something of a game of smoke and mirrors surrounding Motherwort and its uses in history.
Many modern herbalists – though notably fewer medical professionals – claim it was used in Ancient Greece, both as a treatment for the heart, and for anxiety in pregnant women.
Weirdly then, there is actually very little written evidence of Motherwort’s use in Ancient Greece. It is specifically and notably absent from some of the leading works of herb lore and botany that survive to our day.
De Materia Medica, published in 64 CE by Greek physician and botanist Dioscorides, mentions it not at all. Neither for that matter does Enquiry Into Plants by Theophrastus (circa 300 BCE).
Theophrastus was a student of Aristotle, and has long been considered the father of botany as a medically applicable science.
It is with Theophrastus that medicine and what might loosely be thought of as ‘witchcraft’ begin to separate (though they would go on to rejoin under the metaphysical medics of Rome).
The fact that he mentions no medical use of Motherwort does not of course mean that it wasn’t used in family recipes or by unofficial herbalists, but it does mean that the father of botany was probably ignorant of any practical and beneficial use for the herb.
The first reference to what might be Motherwort is in The Natural History by Pliny the Elder, circa 77 CE.
In that work, he names a plant ‘femur bulbum,’ and says it “is good for the sinews, applied fresh, and beaten up with salt and vinegar.”
One main scholar has asserted that Pliny’s femur bulbum is our Leonurus cardiaca, but infuriatingly for those who want to establish the long historical use of Motherwort, this is in no way confirmed within the text, and so, whether or not femur bulbum is our Motherwort, we cannot as yet claim it with anything like sufficient evidence.
So if it wasn’t being used by anxious mothers in Ancient Greece, what exactly is the history of Motherwort?
In 2897, American naturalist and doctor Charles Pickering declared it likely that Motherwort originated in central and northern Asia (Possibly Japan and Siberia), and then spread west into Europe.
From the 17th-century, it was being used more and more in Western Europe, though its use in traditional Chinese medicine pre-dates this by quite some time.
Motherwort in the 17th-Century
By 1598, English botanist and herbalist John Gerarde had documented the uses of Motherwort in his The Herball or Generall History of Plants.
Why is that significant? Because not only was it widely circulated in England at the time, but it was taken across the ocean by American colonists, and became a book on which they relied not only for many of their recipes – to know what was safe and what was not – but also for their medical practices.
So the observations on Motherwort made by Gerarde became part and parcel of accepted herb lore in the white migrant colonies of America.
So what did Gerarde say about Motherwort?
“Divers commend it against infirmities of the heart: it is judged to be so forcible, that it is thought it took his name Cardiaca of the effect.
It is also reported to cure convulsions, cramps, and palsies, to open the obstructions or stoppings of the intrals, and to kill all kinds of worms in the belly.
The powder in wine provoketh not only urine and the monthly courses, but also is good for them that it is hard travail with child.
Moreover, the same is commended for green wounds, it is also a remedy in certain diseases in cattle, as the cough and murren; and for that cause such diverse husbandmen oftentimes much desire it.”
Here then, rather than in Ancient Greece, is likely the first written reflection on Motherwort as a treatment for heart palpitations, as a bringer-on of periods – and, used at the right time, of babies.
It’s interesting to note that some of the now known side-effects of too much Motherwort, like diarrhea, were reported as potential positives in Gerarde’s work – opening up the obstructions and stoppings of the intrals (entrails).
The same is true of the provoking of urine (again, possibly a side-effect of uterine cramps).
Four decades later in 1640, English botanist Charles Parkinson reinforced the Gerarde theory of Motherwort as a tonic to promote menstruation, ease a difficult labor, and prevent or ease heart palpitations in his Theatrum Botanicum.
Unsatisfied with leaving it at that though, he worked Motherwort into the system of bodily humors and qualities. Motherwort, he announced, was warming, drying, and relaxing.
What that meant within the system is that it was a relatively good purgative, balancing otherwise congested states (like constipation, and in the same sphere of ideas, late menstruation, water retention, and the like).
Anything which was better out than in could be promoted to leave the body by Motherwort, he suggested – including the tension caused by retaining (for example) food waste, urine, or menstrual blood.
“It is of good use to warm and dry up the cold humors, to digest and disperse them that are settled in the veins, joints, and sinews of the body, and to help cramps and convulsions,” he wrote.
When we next explicitly hear of Motherwort, it’s in 1652, in the work of Nicholas Culpeper.
Culpeper was, to say the least, a controversial character, blending serious botany with astrology in a semi-classical style, and publishing his own books in common English, so they could be understood by the common people.
Today, he’d have his own talk show, lambasting Big Pharma and telling people to do their own research.
In his Complete Herbal (originally titled The English Physician), he describes the effects of Motherwort in a pleasingly readable style, albeit he basically repeats the same screed from Gerarde, without dabbling with any of Parkinson’s humors.
“There is no better herb to take melancholy vapours from the heart, to strengthen it, and make a merry, cheerful, blithe soul than this herb. It may be kept in a syrup or conserve; therefore the Latins called it Cardiaca.
Besides, it makes women joyful mothers of children, and settles their wombs as they should be, therefore we call it Motherwort.”
Culpeper also notes the nerve-calming effect of Motherwort, especially on new mothers.
Given what we now believe might be its effect on high blood pressure, his specification of it being useful for new mothers is probably coincidental.
It was frequently given to new mothers postpartum, rather than widely dispensed, and so that’s the group who were available to observe in terms of the effect of the herb.
Motherwort in the 19th and 20th centuries
Motherwort, with its reputation as a heart calmer, a nerve tonic and a gynecological aid now established, was picked up in the early decades of the 19th century by a group known as the physiomedicalists.
The physiomedicalists were in favor of using the likes of medieval herb lore instead of, or alongside, the emerging medicines and treatments.
They were more or less the predecessors of our modern proponents of ‘alternative’ medicine, and then as now, they were an ‘alternative’ to some pretty harsh treatments with some pretty serious side effects.
Between 1836-1880, they established what would come to be known as the Physio-Medical College in Ohio.
We mention them because among many other herbal remedies, they took an interest in Motherwort, for more or less the same conditions as had often been associated with it.
William Cook, in his The Physio-medical Dispensatory of 1869, called Motherwort “a nervine tonic and antispasmodic” which also acts upon the stomach and uterus.
It’s interesting to note the shift in emphasis there, so that Motherwort becomes principally a soother of nerves and an antispasmodic.
“As a tonic for nervousness, pains and palpitation of the heart, the sufferings peculiar to women, and habitual restlessness, it is an agent deserving of the first consideration…The profession will find in it an antispasmodic tonic of the first order,” Cook added, folding the menstrual element and the heart palpitations back into the equation.
The physiomedicalists gave way to the eclectics – 19th-century doctors who had little time for the ‘mainstream’ medical practices of the day (helping to drive a wedge between mainstream medicine and alternative practices).
They were huge exponents of herbal medicines and established a large number of medical schools based on their thinking.
They also published a lot, in an attempt to establish a rival tradition of medicine to the mainstream, more scientifically-based, if sometimes wrong-headed approach to medicine.
King’s American Dispensatory of 1852, The American Materia Medica (1919) by Finley Ellingwood, and The Eclectic Materia Medica (1922) by Harvey Wickes Felter are full of herb lore that either contradicts mainstream practice, or accords with it but provides more ‘natural’ remedies to achieve similar results. The Materia Medica (1922) describes Motherwort as:
“A simple emmenagogue and antispasmodic, evidently having considerable control over the nervous system.
It has been advised in nervous debility with irritation and unrest, tendency to choreic movements or spasms, pelvic and lumbar uneasiness and pain, and in bearing-down pains and the discomforts incident to debility of the female reproductive organs.”
From the early 20th-century to the early 21st, little has changed in our understanding of Motherwort, though its use as a heart tonic has fallen off as there appears little verifiable evidence that this is effective.
That said, there remains a divide between what conventional medicine is prepared to use it for, and the list of conditions to whose treatment it is linked in alternative medicines.
More clinical, medical testing might well even up that balance – or might just as easily put to rest some of the claims that have been made for Motherwort since at least the 17th-century.