Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is one of those powerful, essential herbs that inspires fierce devotion in so many herbalists and herb enthusiasts. Those of us who love it agree; this herb works its magic in the realm of the heart—emotionally, energetically, and physically. A special friend to mothers and anyone in need of the strength and protection of a matriarchal figure, Motherwort supports us, nourishes us, and helps us to heal the hurts we may encounter on our winding ways.
Etymology & Botany
Its Latin name, Leonurus cardiaca, speaks to its resemblance and affinity. Leonurus, the genus name, is from the Greek, meaning ‘lion’s tail’, which certain species of this genus were thought to resemble. Cardiaca, the species name, refers to its affinity for ‘the heart’. Modern day herbalists often call it the “lion-hearted herb.” The common English name of “Motherwort” quite literally means “mother’s herb” for the many ways it supports the bodies of those who mother, and the spirits of those who need mothering.2
Motherwort is in the Mint, or Lamiaceae, family, and we can see this in its characteristic square stem and petite, pink flowers. It is a perennial herb which can grow to heights of over 10 feet, has opposite pairs of (some say heart-shaped, some say tail tuft-shaped) leaves topped by clusters of flowers spaced along the stem and tends to bloom twice a season, once in mid-spring and again in late summer. Like other mints, we use the aerial parts medicinally, and topping the plant early in the season will help it continue to produce.1
Motherwort has been used for millennia cross-continentally by many beings, in many different ways. However, it’s interesting to note that common uses have emerged, such as its heart- and womb-specific medicinal actions. Aside from its medicinal uses, this herb has also been used as a seasoning in soup and lentil recipes, particularly in traditional Russian cuisine, and as a flavoring agent in wild ferments of beer, ale, and mead.4
Motherwort is native to northern and central Asia (modern-day Siberia and Japan) and Europe, and we see itt present in the healing traditions that emerged from each of these areas.4 It is prolific and has since naturalized throughout most of the world, with widespread global presence today. For the purposes of this article, we will focus primarily on the western uses of Motherwort, though it has multifaceted historical and current uses in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Russian folk medicine, and beyond.
European herbalism prized it for a veritable laundry list of medicinal applications. John Gerarde, an English botanist and herbalist, wrote of its uses for cardiac, digestive, muscular, and reproductive ailments. From his 1598 The Herball or Generall History of Plants, Motherwort is “…commend[ed] 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…to open the obstructions or stoppings of the intrals…and 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.” Later, in 1652, Nicholas Culpeper, an English physician, herbalist, botanist, and astrologer, wrote of its effects on the emotional-heart in his Complete Herbal, “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…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.”4
Motherwort is bitter, acrid, and aromatic; it’s indicated in tissue states of constriction and atrophy.5 Energetically, some say it is cooling due to its ability to disperse and reduce heat and excitation, others say it’s warming due to its ability to loosen tightness and move tension in the body. I find that Motherwort is mostly neutral, but will act slightly warming or cooling depending on what the individual needs. Herbs are highly intelligent!
Heart & Nerves
As so many before us have noted, Motherwort is a wonderful remedy for the heart and nerves. A cardiac trophorestorative, it balances and nourishes the cardiovascular system overall, and is helpful in calming the sympathetic nervous system, as are many intensely acrid bitter herbs. It is indicated in cases of heart palpitations (and heart palpitations that occur during menstruation and menopause), nervousness, restlessness, anxiety, irritability, emotional reactivity, high blood pressure, and hyperthyroidism.5 Motherwort has a holding energy, and I find that it is a great remedy for stressed-out, high strung folks who don’t have much time to care for themselves. It brings the heart back to its natural rhythm, releases tension, and uplifts the spirits. I also use it in energetic doses with clients who had difficult relationships with their mothers or families.
Womb & Hormonal Support
Motherwort, the “mother’s herb,” is a friend to anyone with a womb, whether they choose to give birth or not! It can be helpful with PMS symptoms like anger or emotional reactivity, bloating, cramping (especially stabbing, bearing down pain), and suppressed menses (amenorrhea or dysmenorrhea) due to tension.5 During the birthing process, it taken internally or applied to the lower abdomen topically can help to expel suppressed lochia, or afterbirth. It’s also a great tonic herb for new parents who feel overwhelmed and underprepared. In menopause, it is indicated for hot flashes, anxiety, and emotional reactivity; additionally, it supports the liver during accompanying hormonal fluctuations.2 For these reasons, I also like to use Motherwort to support those coming off of hormonal birth control, as it can aid in reestablishing a cycle, clearing the liver of synthetic hormones, and tempering mood swings.
Motherwort is an acrid bitter herb, meaning it stimulates the secretion of saliva, digestive juices, and bile, which helps the digestive system to more effectively break down food and assimilate nutrients. It also relaxes the smooth muscles of the digestive tract, allowing the natural undulation of the digestive process to regulate while also easing nervous tension and improving overall muscle tone.5 A Polish study found that, “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.”1 Herbalists Kiva Rose and Thomas Easley use Motherwort for folks who experience disordered emotional eating patterns like anorexia, fear of food/overly strict eating habits, feelings of unworthiness which lead to deficient nutrition, etc. I agree and have also found that it can be a very successful accompanying remedy to healing harmful patterns of eating.3
Contraindications of Motherwort
Motherwort is regarded as generally safe but should be avoided during pregnancy, by those on cardiac medications, and those with hypothyroidism. It can sometimes cause flooding in menopausal or postpartum individuals, so monitor administration and effects closely.
Methods of Medicinal Use
Motherwort may be used in many forms by the skillful herbalist; the following preparation suggestions are the most widely used and accessible to obtain.
It makes an interesting tea indeed! As an acrid bitter herb, I would advise most folks against drinking a strong infusion of it all on its own, unless their tastes are accustomed to intense herbal bitterness. However, a few small sips will do the trick, and a tea can be made and kept in the fridge for a few days, with small sips taken every few hours. To make, infuse one tablespoon of dried Motherwort leaf to 8 oz of just boiled water; steep covered for about 15 minutes, strain, and drink. It can also be added to a tea blend with some tastier herbs; I like to pair it with Rose and Lemon Balm. Additionally, the tea can be applied topically (once cooled!) to the skin to ease cramping, especially in the womb space.
The preparation I usually use is a Motherwort tincture, or alcohol extract. I find the fresh, flowering herb to be the most potent form for tincture making. Tinctures are usually an alcohol (80 proof vodka, grain alcohol, or other clear booze) extraction of a plant, however, vegetable glycerine or apple cider vinegar can be used in place of alcohol to keep preparations alcohol-free. To prepare a tincture, pour menstruum of choice over fresh (1:2 herb to liquid ratio) or dried (1:5 herb to liquid ratio) herb in a preferably glass container for at least 6 weeks, sealed, shaking every day until straining. Just a few drops usually does the trick, but always consult a trusted herbalist for doses for particular ailments.
It makes a beautiful massage oil or salve, as it’s useful for cramping muscles. To make a simple oil, simply pour oil of choice (I like using olive, jojoba, hempseed, apricot kernel) over the dried herb in a preferably glass jar, so that the herb is completely submerged. Seal the jar tightly and shake well daily for 2-3 weeks, keeping the jar on a sunny, warm windowsill, then strain the herbs out using cheesecloth. To make a simple salve, melt a tablespoon of shaved beeswax for every 4 ounces of strained Motherwort oil on low heat on the stovetop, using a double boiler. Once the beeswax is melted, pour into small glass or metal tins and allow to cool. Apply your new oil or salve liberally to sore muscles!
It grows abundantly from early spring to late summer. See if you can find some growing in your yard, garden, or on local, organic farms or in pollutant-free meadows. If you can’t find it growing near you, or if it isn’t in season, you can order dried Motherwort 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 with Motherwort can be found at The Alchemist’s Kitchen. My favorites are this soothing Moontime CBD tincture by Plant Alchemy and this happy, uplifting Joy Tonic by Urban Moonshine.