A midwife’s job is to nurture both mother and child during labor. Doulas who attend women throughout their experience of pregnancy share similar responsibilities. Nurturing women’s well-being. Pruning away their fears. It seems natural that such practitioners would develop a lot of skills in common with gardeners.

The green witch is the traditional midwife, and it fell to her to provide remedies for everything from cramps to hot flashes. If you have an interest in the medicinal side of plants, you will find that an understanding of the herbs of women’s healing is essential. Here are six plants with long histories that are still grown and used today.

Raspberry leaf (Rubus idaeus)

This leaf is an indispensable herb for the expectant mother. It is believed to help strengthen the muscles of the uterus, and is therefore recommended for the last trimester to prepare the womb for its marathon of life giving agony. Many doulas give it as a tea during the early stages of labor. It is considered safe for use by most women, as it only strengthens and tones the muscles, rather than inducing them to contract.

Left: Clarke Raspberry Credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library via Flickr. Right: Luscious raspberries with healing leaves.

Black cohosh (Actaea racemosa)

Indigenous to America, this plant has been used for unknown ages by Native American women. It is useful for a wide range of women’s complaints. It’s both estrogenic and a suppressor of the luteinizing hormone, and so it can help with hot flashes and other symptoms of menopause. It stimulates the uterus to contract, so it can bring on a sluggish period, and some say even shorten its length. Because of this quality, it is contraindicated in pregnancy.

Left: Black cohosh Credit: Biodiversity Heritage Library via Flickr. Right: Black cohosh flower in the wild.

Pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium)

Pennyroyal is a member of the familiar and populous mint family. It is another emmenagogue, meaning that it can bring on delayed menses by causing the uterus to expel its contents. It thins the uterine lining, and so makes a woman’s period a less painful, smoother process. Because of its ability to cause the womb to contract, it is also classified as an abortifacient. It should not be used during a wanted pregnancy, and its use to terminate an unwanted one should be attended by an experienced herbalist. It can be lethal in doses high enough to be effective for abortion.

Left: Pennyroyal Credit: Wikimedia. Right: Fuzzy tuft of Pennyroyal flowers. Credit: Wil Meinderts / Fotonatura.com

Cramp bark (Viburnum opulus)

A well named plant, cramp bark eases painful menstrual cramping by having something like the opposite effect of black cohosh or pennyroyal. Rather than stimulating the uterus it acts as a muscle relaxant. It is also said to be a uterine decongestant, which means that it helps to clear the many blockages, such as cysts and fibroids, that can make menstruation so painful for some.

Left: Cramp Bark Credit: Wikimedia. Right: Cramp Bark in the wild. Credit: J K Lindsey

Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea)

Clary sage is another prized remedy for menstrual issues. Like cramp bark, it gently clears obstructions to the free flow of menstruation. It is a mild sedative, and can ease the nervousness and irritability that plagues some women before and during their periods. There are claims that it may also be protective against ovarian cancer. The list of this popular herb’s benefits goes on at such length as to strain the imagination.

Left: Clary Sage Credit: Wikimedia. Right: Clary Sage blossoms.

Motherwort (Leonurus cardiaca)

This herb could be included here for its name alone, but there are many other good reasons. It is a mild but effective anti-inflammatory a uterine tonic, and is used for what in Chinese medicine is called a “cold uterus.” This means that it gently stimulates a sluggish cycle while strengthening the muscles. It soothes anxiety in general and women’s mood imbalances in particular. It’s said to be the most effective herb for the negative effects of menopause as well. This is an herb that can help to bring a woman comfortably through the entirety of her reproductive journey.

Left: Motherwort Credit: Wikimedia. Right: Furry Motherwort! Credit: Brian Johnston.

Quite a bit of scientific study has shown many of these herbs to serve the purposes for which they’ve been known for centuries, if not millennia. Compounds in the plants often act on the body’s system, especially the endocrine, in ways that wise women have understood from time immemorial. Considering that so many of the medicines that we get from our pharmacies were originally derived from plants, perhaps that shouldn’t be so surprising.

Rachel Goldsmith

Rachel Goldsmith

Rachel Goldsmith is a writer, artist, and avid gardener. She likes Victorian horror, has an unhealthy obsession with cats, and knows just enough about graphic design to be dangerous. Her personal motto is “it's probably more complicated than that.”
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