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By Jesse Goldstein

This past Spring I helped to create a “Healing Garden” for a community garden at Myrtle and Kent called Myrtle Village Green. We planted dozens of herbs – both annuals and perennials – including Chamomile, Lemon Balm, Astragalus, Valerian, Skullcap, Yarrow, Wood Betony, and Motherwort. The healing properties of each plant vary greatly, as do the ways in which they should be harvested and prepared. To make my first herbal preparation, I worked with my friend and fellow gardener Millie Lytle. Millie is a naturopathic doctor with two decades of experience sharing, making and researching herbal remedies and incorporating them into a general wellness program. Together, we decided to begin by making a tincture of Motherwort.

What is Motherwort?

Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca) is a hearty member of the mint family that prefers partial shade and grows wild in nearly every county of New York state. Motherwort is popular in Japanese, Russian and Chinese medicine, and is also known as Throw-wort, Lion’s Ear, and Lion’s Tail. Its flavor is described as bitter, spicy and cooling. In North America, the plant is popular among midwives, and is considered a “nervine” (something that calms the nerves) for women experiencing stressful times such as pregnancy, childbirth and menopause. Motherwort is thought to improve the tone of the uterus and is therefore recommended for stopping unwanted bleeding or hemorrhage after birth, to start a delayed period, or to ease menstrual cramps, stomach pains or gas. Further, some herbalists and midwives suggest using it as an “emmenagogue” to bring in a mother’s milk.

Herbalists also recommend motherwort for men and children experiencing lower back pain, sciatica, toothaches and headaches. In Germany, the Commission E, which regulates herbal remedies similar to how the FDA regulates pharmaceuticals, suggests using motherwort as part of a general treatment for an overactive thyroid and to help with cardiac symptoms related to anxiety. As Dr. Millie explains, “It’s all in the name: Motherwort is a soothing hug for frayed emotions and anxious bodies.” 

So how does Motherwort work? Dr. Millie gave me a brief introduction to some of the chemistry involved, “Motherwort contains an alkaloid called leonurine that relaxes the body’s smooth muscles. This is responsible for most of its pain and anxiety relieving effects. It also contains anti-inflammatory bioflavonoids called rutin and quercetin, as well as vitamin A, tannins and antimicrobial volatile oils.” Motherwort is generally safe for most people. However, as with any herbal remedy, one should always consult a trained professional before using motherwort, as there are safety considerations relative to each person’s unique situation. 

Making our tincture

We harvested our motherwort in August when the plant was in full bloom; tall, yellow-flowering tops rise up from the bushy foliage. We spent an afternoon cutting a few of these flowering tops off of our plants, bound them into a small bouquet, and then hung them inside to dry. The plant was likely dry after a week or two, but we waited a few months to make our tincture.

A tincture is a liquid extraction that draws out the healing properties of plants. Usually the liquid used is alcohol that is at least 80 proof (40% alcohol by volume). We chose Everclear, which is 190 proof (95% alcohol by volume). In addition to the motherwort and the alcohol, we used a glass canning jar with sealable lid, scissors for cutting the herb (carefully, as motherwort is thorny), a pot of boiling water, a spatula, and the oven.  We used the pot of boiling water and the oven to sterilize the lid and the glass jar, submerging the lid in boiling water and putting the jar (after cleaning it with soap and water) into the oven on 250. 

The ratio of motherwort to alcohol is important. When making a tincture with dried plant matter, herbalists typically use an herb to alcohol ratio of 1:5. This means one part herb by weight in grams, to 5 parts alcohol by volume in milliliters.  We needed 1 gram of motherwort for every 5 ml of alcohol. Measuring the vodka was easy – 5ml is about one teaspoon. Without a kitchen scale to weigh the motherwort, we assumed that one teaspoon of well compacted motherwort was approximately equal to 1 gram. Conveniently, one teaspoon motherwort and one teaspoon alcohol satisfied our 1:5 herb to alcohol ratio. 

We made a large batch using 5 cups of motherwort and 5 cups of alcohol. After our sterilized jar had cooled off we gently pressed the dried flowers and leaves in with a spatula until the jar was firmly packed. We poured the alcohol into the herb-filled jar making sure all of the motherwort was fully submerged. We then sealed the jar, gave it a good shake to mix everything together, and began the waiting game. We put our tincture-to-be in a dark cabinet for 4 weeks, occasionally giving the jar a little shake to make sure all of the motherwort was exposed to the alcohol.

After four weeks, we strained the tincture through cheesecloth into a clean jar, keeping the liquid and removing all the fibrous plant matter.  After squeezing as much liquid as we could out of the motherwort, we used a funnel to pour the finished tincture into an amber glass bottle, labeled with the date we made it and the strength. Now it is in Dr. Millie’s apothecary, ready for her to offer to her patients! 

Footnote:

This article is not meant to be a surrogate for medical advice from a trained professional. In the US, the medical establishment does not embrace herbal remedies, and while it is generally accepted that motherwort is safe to consume, its medicinal properties – as with most herbal remedies – are not seen to be scientifically proven in a satisfactory manner. As with any decision involving healing practices, one should always consult the experts that they most trust. 

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