Gromwell (Lithospermum erythrorhizon) is an herbaceous plant with potent medicinal properties, widely employed in modern and traditional Eastern healing practices. Gromwell root is the most commonly used part of the plant; the first recorded medicinal use of the root appeared in the ancient Chinese medical text, The Divine Farmer’s Materia Medica, written thousands of years ago, between 200 – 250 CE. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, it has been used internally to cool heat and inflammation, invigorate circulation, and detoxify. 4
Gromwell root has been used historically to treat eruptive skin lesions like psoriasis, eczema, dermatitis, measles, smallpox, hives, and rashes. In the European herbal tradition, Gromwell seed and root were used topically as plasters and poultices for similar skin complaints. Gromwell root has been cultivated in Japan since the Nara period, 710-794 CE, for both its medicinal properties and to make a highly prized red-purple dye. Some Indigenous North American tribes chewed it as a treatment for colds, drank it as a strong tea for contraceptive purposes, and used it as a topical treatment for paralyzed limbs and infections. 5
Gromwell is in the Borage, or Boraginaceae family, native to Europe and Western Asia and now naturalized in the northeastern United States. It is an herbaceous perennial which grows to heights of about 3 ft, with simple, alternate leaves and 5-petaled white or yellow flowers that give way to small, nut-like fruits. 1
Gromwell Root’s Commonly Reported Benefits
It is alterative, which means it has detoxifying, blood purifying, and skin healing effects. Gromwell root is sweet in taste and has been shown to be antimicrobial, antiviral, antifungal, and anti-inflammatory. 4
Soothes Inflammatory Skin Issues
Perhaps it’s most widely recognized action is as a vulnerary or herb that promotes skin healing. It works both topically and internally to clear heat and inflammation and cleanse toxins from the blood and skin. One study found that Gromwell root, taken internally, measurably balanced skin hydration and surface lipids in patients with Atopic Dermatitis, improving this condition. 3 A decoction or syrup is indicated in various eruptive skin issues, like rashes, hives, eczema, and psoriasis. Gromwell root extract is often found in botanical skincare products due to its ability to hydrate, soothe, and repair the skin topically as well. 5
It also contains potent antimicrobial action, meaning it is antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral by nature. One study found that the antiviral and anti-inflammatory properties of Shikonin, a phytochemical extract from Gromwell root, inhibited chemokine receptor function, and suppressed HIV Type 1. The study recommended that Shikonin, and more broadly, it is a worthy natural component to be included in the development of novel anti-HIV therapeutic agents. 2 Gromwell root is also effective against maladies like the common cold, sinus infection, and viral illness and has been used as a remedy for colds, flu, fever, and sore throat.
Kidney and Bladder Support
It is an age-old treatment for kidney stones and gravel, kidney failure, bladder infection, urinary tract infection, and cystitis. Botanist and herbalist William Cole correlated its affinity for the bladder and kidneys through the “Doctrine of Signatures,” noting that its fruit’s seeds and ovary walls were stony, which implied the herb’s use in the alleviation of kidney gravel and stones. Recent clinical trials in China have shown that Gromwell root extracts can alleviate uroschesis, or painful urine retention, safely and effectively. Gromwell root was found to reduce levels of uric acid and sodium in the body. 6
Gromwell root is considered to be a generally safe herb. Those who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use this herb in high or regular doses unless advised by a qualified healthcare practitioner, as it may cause hormonal fluctuations. As always, consult with a trusted herbalist or physician before taking high doses of herbs regularly.
Common Uses of Gromwell Root
It has many possibilities for use and application! This herb may be used in many forms; the following preparation suggestions are the most widely used and accessible to make or obtain in the practice of modern herbalism.
Gromwell Root Powder
Often, it is sold as either chopped, dried root, or in powdered form. The powdered root may be a simpler method for consumption if cooking or decocting the chopped root is too much of a hassle. Gromwell root powder is versatile and may be used internally or externally. To use internally, mix 1 tsp of Gromwell root powder with hot water, tea, broth, liquid, or food of choice. The powder can also be encapsulated in vegetable cellulose capsules and taken as a supplement. Alternatively, the powder can be mixed with vinegar, water, tea, aloe, honey, or liquid of choice. It can also be applied as a poultice to wounded or inflamed skin. The powder can be added to face oils or creams or used as a face mask.
Gromwell Root Decoction or Syrup
Gromwell root sold as chopped, dried root can be easily made into a decoction or a tea that’s simmered for 20 plus minutes. To make a Gromwell root decoction, add 2 tbsp of dried, chopped Gromwell root to about 24 oz of water. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 20-40 minutes or until liquid is reduced by half. At this point, the decoction can be strained and drank like a tea or applied topically like a toner. To make Gromwell root syrup, add about 1 cup of sugar or honey to the decoction to taste, then store in the fridge; take 1-2 tbsp servings at a time.
Sourcing Gromwell Root
Gromwell can grow in most relatively temperate places. To grow, sow the seeds in the early spring in a greenhouse or cold frame; when the seedlings are large enough to handle, put them into individual pots. Then you can grow them in a greenhouse or indoors through the first winter. Plant them outside in late spring or early summer, after the last expected frost. 1 Otherwise, it can be sourced from reputable sources on the internet or, ideally, from small, local makers and businesses, like a neighborhood herb store or health food co-op. Carefully selected, small-batch herbal products containing Chickweed can also be found at The Alchemist’s Kitchen. My favorite is this amazingly effective Tollovid™ Immune Support Capsules by Plant Alchemy.
- Brand, E. (2010). Eric Brand’s Blog: Growing Chinese Herbs Outside of China.
- Chen, Xin, et al. “Shikonin, a Component of Chinese Herbal Medicine, Inhibits Chemokine Receptor Function and Suppresses Human Immunodeficiency Virus Type 1”
- Cho HR, Cho Y, Kim J, et al. “The Effect of Gromwell (Lithospermum erythrorhizon) Extract on the Stratum Corneum Hydration and Ceramides Content in Atopic Dermatitis Patients.”
- Kett, Stacey. “Exploring Chinese and Western herbs that can be cultivated or wild-harvested in the Pacific Northwest: A movement towards sustainability of Chinese Medicine in the western world”
- Native Plant Trust. “Lithospermum”
- Wood, Matthew. “The Doctrine of Signatures”