Imagine a mother whose child is having a terrible anaphylactic allergy attack, and is being rushed to the hospital. The mother stays close by and tries to keep a brave face: keeping eye contact, holding the child’s hand, speaking soothing reassurances, projecting safety while the medics hover and flit. That’s motherwort mind.
Motherwort is helpful when you have to do something hard, something that makes your insides churn, and when you have to do it with a calm exterior. The botanical name, Leonurus cardiaca, evokes both the lion and the heart – this is not coincidence. This is a plant for courage and boundaries: the courage to do the needful thing, the boundaries to hold a safe space.
When you work with motherwort with the intention of altering emotional currents – whether as a few drops of tincture or flower essence, a cup of tea, a bit of ritual smoke, or however you choose to collaborate – this is what the plant offers you. A capacity for holding space and giving comfort … and, through that, bringing calm to your own inner world. Self-care, in service.
So the next time you need to do something emotionally fraught, in service to others – to break some bad news, stand up for the disempowered, tend to the dying – ask motherwort for help. It can help you remain both strong and compassionate, a potent state of being that is not always easy to maintain.
(We’ll come to the physical effects of the herb next. I wanted to tell you about this first, so you’ll keep it in mind as you read the rest.)
Calm, Steady, Flexible
So! Here is an herb with a suite of effects involving the interface between the nerves and the heart, mediated by relaxation.
Motherwort is in the mint family, the Lamiaceae; like others in this family, it has a square stem. Hold a stem between your forefinger and thumb, and roll it back and forth – you’ll feel it. The flowers are pink and white – soft-looking, fluffy little fireworks – but the seed pods are sharp and spiny, so watch out! (It’s about boundaries, remember?) All the above-ground parts are harvested for medicine-making.
The taste is bitter, a little aromatic, and just a touch acrid – these tastes correlate directly to its cool, dry, and relaxant qualities. These are qualities you can observe in its effects on healthy or diseased states of the body, but – because we don’t keep our emotions in the cloud; because they are embodied, just like our cognition – what happens in the physical body happens in the emotional body too. Cool means calm, even under pressure. Dry means solid, steadfast (especially if coming from a place of watery oversoftness). Relaxed means flexible, with space to stretch. So when you’re feeling hot and bothered (in the unpleasant kind of way 😉), motherwort is a great choice.
Soothe Your Heart
Motherwort relaxes and calms the heart. This makes it a particularly effective remedy for palpitations and angina: fluttering, unsteady heartbeat, pain in the chest – especially pain that results in a tense, inward-twisted posture and a tight grimace – a problem of tension that results in overexcitation and loss of rhythm. (A very similar pain presents in the paroxysms of grief.)
As a cooling remedy, motherwort helps to drain heat from the upper body, its action centered on the region of the heart. This action is applicable for heat in the circulatory system, as in the case of high blood pressure, but also for other heat conditions, like hyperthyroidism (you might combine it in that instance with lemon balm or bugleweed). Cooled tea is best for this kind of need.
The herb has a gentle vasodilating action as well, opening up the vasculature and improving blood circulation throughout the body. This cools the body by opening the periphery at the level of the skin, giving the herb a relaxing diaphoretic action – a “venting” effect – which is helpful in releasing the heat of fever … or the heat of fiery emotions. On a hot day like those we’ve had this past week, it’s a welcome shift!
Rest and Divest
The heart is a nexus of nervous tissue, like the brain and the gut, but unlike them it is entwined with the unique cardiac muscle tissues. Relaxing the muscular aspect of the heart accounts for much of the motherwort’s effect on cardiovascular issues, but the other side of its action is as a nervine sedative – an agent which slows or quiets overexcited nerves.
This nerve-soothing effect extends beyond the heart, though remaining centered on it. Motherwort is an excellent remedy for nervous conditions, particularly when they’re accompanied by heat – whether that’s literal heat, as on a 100° day, or metaphorical/energetic heat, as anxiety, agitation, anger, and so on. We cool off and let go.
Herbs like motherwort help shift us into the parasympathetic nervous system state – better known as “rest and digest” mode. When we can’t get there, we tighten up, and this causes ‘friction’ to build up internally. We get hot, restless, unsettled. Cooling the heat and releasing the constriction brings relief from nervousness, headaches, tension, and insomnia. Motherwort is particularly helpful in sleep formulae when there is an issue with repeated, disruptive waking in the night. It’s also quite good when indigestion is frustrating sleep, as it’s a bitter digestive: we need to digest to rest, to sleep deep.
Of Utility To A Uterus
As an emmenagogue and a uterine relaxant, motherwort helps to bring on a stagnant period, particularly one that is accompanied by anxiety or emotional agitation. It’s also helpful for expelling the afterbirth, when the placenta does not readily ‘drop’ after the birth of a child. Please note that both of these effects are primarily due to the relaxant quality of the herb, and only minimally to direct stimulation of uterine contractions.
The herb does have some slight oxytocic activity, which is to say it can stimulate the release of the hormone oxytocin, which in turn can cause the uterine muscles to contract. With motherwort, though, this effect is minor, and in no way strong enough to expel a healthy pregnancy. In our opinion, it’s patently ridiculous to consider this herb “abortifacient” (though you’ll sometimes see that term in very conservative resources). Bodies are complex, both ours and those of the herbs. Their interactions are rarely reducible to pharmacomolecular terms.
If you’re worried, just don’t take it during pregnancy! And if you have a heavy flow, this may not be the best herbal ally for you. You might consider mugwort, linden, violet, or hawthorn instead. There’s always another herb.
Join our newsletter for more herby goodness
Get CommonWealth newsletter delivered right to your inbox. You'll be first to hear about free mini-courses, podcast episodes, and other goodies about holistic herbalism.