We move this month from the fame of Elder, to a plant of relative obscurity that has been calling my attention. I am not sure whether it is growing in more abundance this year, or whether I am just noticing it more because it has chosen to move into my garden.
Hedge Woundwort is a tall, hairy perennial that grows in hedges, woods and on waste ground, where its tall spires of crimson-purple flowers stand out among the lushness of green growth of other plants. The flowers are arranged in whorls around the central stem. They are hooded, with the lower lip beautifully variegated with white against the crimson background. Bees love this plant and are frequent visitors. The whole plant has a fairly pungent even foetid smell, which is not particularly pleasant. It has dark green pointed-oval leaves that are stalked and toothed.
As its name suggests it has been used as a wound-healing herb and enjoyed quite a reputation in the past, as its other name, Allheal, suggests. Culpeper tells us that it is “inferior to none” in its ability to heal wounds. Although it is little used today it appears that it is a very powerful remedy that we should know more about. As well as being healing to the tissues, it also arrests bleeding and is an antiseptic. I am certainly going to make use of it myself as a first aid remedy.
Woundwort’s latin name is Stachys sylvatica, and it is related to a better known herb , Wood Betony, Stachys betonica, to which it bears some resemblance. They both belong to the Labiatae family and like other members of this family it has a square stem, though this is solid and full of pith, not hollow. Its aroma is very similar to that of Black Horehound,Balotta nigra, another close relative. Like these two plant relatives, Woundwort has antispasmodic and sedative properties when taken internally. I have found references in old herbals to it being used for menstrual and ovary pain, cramps and aching joints.
This plant produces leaves that are oblong and pointed at the tips (somewhat resembling a heart) having smoothed bases that hold onto the stem and get thinner to a narrow point. The leaves are arranged in pairs up the stem - the leaves as well as the stems have fine bristles. In addition, the leaves are long, slender and jagged - those at the base of the plant are longer than the others. The plant bears flowers from the latter part of summer (during the period between June and August) that appear in spikes of mauve. The woundwort flowers are two-lipped having patches of different colors (mottled) and bloom in whorls of six at the stem terminals. The flowers stay on the plant till the first frosts of the winter. The lower lip of the flower possesses a charming dotted white pattern. Generally, the woundwort flowers are pollinated by the bees, who visit the flowers for nectar.
Woundwort and betony (botanical name, Stachys officinalis) are known to be closely related. Similar to betony, since the Middle Ages, even woundwort has been highly valued as a healing herb and, therefore, it is also often called ‘all-heal'. In earlier times, this herb was mainly used to cure cuts and injuries and generally used in the form of a poultice prepared with the fresh leaves. During the latter part of the 16th century, British herbalist John Gerard endorsed the herb following his visit to a farmer who had himself cured his own deep wound caused by a scythe by applying a poultice of crushed fresh woundwort leaves. In fact, when this renowned herbalist made an offer to the farmer to treat his wound free of charge, the latter refused to oblige. Gerard later named the herb ‘clown's woundwort'. And in the subsequent times, the herbalist asserted that he had cured several serious wounds - some of them even ‘life-threatening', using the herb woundwort.
Woundwort possesses antispasmodic properties and, since long, the herb has been traditionally used as a medication to treat gout, cramps and aching joints. In fact, even contemporary herbalists recommend this herb for treating pains caused by cramps. In addition, woundwort also possesses astringent as well antiseptic properties and, therefore, its effectiveness in stopping hemorrhages as well as healing wounds. In traditional herbal medicine, topical application of the fresh woundwort leaves is still prescribed to heal cuts and wounds. On the other hand, an herbal tea prepared with the leaves of the plant is believed to be useful in curing diarrhea.