Herbs for Heartbreak

Feb 8 / Seán Pádraig O’Donoghue
I love love in all its many splendored forms. And there is a beauty in having a time in the dead of winter when we celebrate the warmth and sweetness of romantic love.

But just as December’s holiday season, with all its joy for many, can be a difficult time for people who are separated from their families by physical or emotional distance, Valentine’s Day can be a difficult time for people with broken hearts. When heartbreak is fresh, all the reminders of romance can feel like salt in a still-open wound. For those who have been nursing a broken heart for a long time, Valentine’s Day can bring these reminders to the surface.

No matter how lonely or sad we feel, the plants are always there for us.

Here are a few of my favorite herbs for helping people move through heartbreak:

ROSE (Rosa spp.)
There is, perhaps, no scent more evocative than that of a blooming Rose carried on the wind on a summer morning just after a rain. Rose can remind us of the beauty of the world, no matter how deep our grief.

In Virdarium Umbris, herbalist and occultist, Daniel Schulke, writes "The Soul of the Rose is exalted within the dew on her petals." Ayurvedic aromatherapist, David Crow, writes that the scent of the Rose "is the moonlight absorbed by the flowers, the dew on their petals at dawn, and the flavors of the soils in which they grow." It is a scent that invites us into an immediate sensual experience of the world around us, inviting us into embodied connection by reminding us of joy.

Roses engage our senses deeply. The reds and pinks and whites and yellows of the blossoms draw our eyes and speak of the gradual unfurling of mysteries to those who approach with loving attention. The petals caress our skin and their medicine soothes burning heat.

Then there is Rose's gentle astringency. Many people think of astringents as herbs that dry us out, but in fact, they bind together tissue fibers and seal membranes to help them hold in fluids, preventing them from flowing out too rapidly. Rose simultaneously awakens, soothes, and holds the heart. I often give Rose to people who keep sobbing themselves into exhaustion, and then as soon as they regain energy begin to sob again. Rose's astringency is mild enough to allow tears to still flow but strong enough to help a person hold onto enough of their own life force to walk through all that grief demands – while the coolness of the petals soothes the heart's burning pain and the sweetness of the flower reminds the heart of joy.

BLEEDING HEART (Dicentra Canadensis)
With its delicate flower that looks like a weeping heart, Bleeding Heart is a gentle and strong ally during times of heartbreak. The plant’s medicine is closely related to that of the pain-relieving Chinese nervine, Corydalis yanhusuo.

I call on Bleeding Heart to help when someone feels grief welling up, but the tears just will not flow. Bleeding Heart releases the tension, letting the tears pull out. Bleeding Heart is also specifically indicated when someone is shaking while they weep. Combine with Rose to balance the flow of tears.

ELECAMPANE (Inula helenium)
Both the English and the Latin names of Elecampane come from the name of Helen of Troy. Greek legend tells us that when she was kidnapped from her homeland, her tears became the seeds of bright yellow flowers that sprung up wherever they fell. Those flowers grow from a deep, resinous root that brings warmth to the belly, the heart, and the lungs.

I first came to know Elecampane as a medicine to help clear cold, dampness from the lungs. I soon came to understand that this dampness is the stagnant water that holds onto old grief. Water moves downward, so unshed tears find their way deep into the lungs.

I learned from Matthew that Elecampane is often the right remedy for someone whose problems with their lungs or their heart trace back to being torn away from home. This definitely makes Elecampane a wonderful medicine when a breakup also means leaving a shared home.

Over time I have discovered, however, that the home that you are torn away from need not have been a physical home for the medicine of Elecampane to be relevant. When you love someone for a long time, the presence of that person begins to feel like home to you. When your connection with them is sundered, that sense of home can be lost. Elecampane can help you navigate the new emotional landscape you find yourself inhabiting.

The most wonderful preparation of Elecampane I ever had was an Elecampane-Cinnamon mead made by a friend. The heat of the Cinnamon nicely complemented the warmth of the Elecampane. The sweetness of the honey helped to bring in sweet memories -- grief always begins in love, and the combination of Elecampane and honey helps to remember the warmth and joy of times gone by even as you mourn their passing.

HOLY BASIL (Occimum sanctum)
When sorrow clouds the senses and makes it hard to think or to see your way through and out of the fog of grief, Holy Basil awakens the senses and clears the mind and heart. It gently disperses the fog, so you can be more present here and now.

Dr. Kenneth Proefrock likes to remind people that Holy Basil is planted at temples in India to mark them as holy places, and to suggest that people approach Holy Basil as an herb that can remind them that their own body is a holy place. I can think of few more important reminders for people emerging from heartbreak than to find what is beautiful and holy about themselves.

MOTHERWORT (Leonurus cardiaca)
There are few herbs more calming to the heart than Motherwort. She brings the presence of the great Cosmic Mother who holds you in her arms and soothes you.

Thinking of Motherwort always brings me back to a night years ago. In the midst of a winter rainstorm, at a time when my life was in turmoil, a woman I was just beginning to know—whom I now count as a dear friend —welcomed me in from the road with a cup of Motherwort tea. After drinking the tea, we sat beside the wood stove, sharing stories and songs. I will always remember the gentle warmth of that night and the way I was able to put aside all my worries and allow myself to accept shelter and care. Friendship and kindness and the warmth of the fire were part of the medicine to be sure, but the experience captures the essence of Motherwort’s medicine.

Motherwort is especially indicated where sudden surges of emotion bring heat, blood, and redness rising to the head and seek release in hot tears. I have sometimes even been able to visually observe the process of that blood flushing the neck and the face, and then, with a few drops of Motherwort, draining back down.

This downward direction of the blood flow is a property of many of the bitter mints that act on the nervous system—Motherwort, Lemon Balm, Skullcap, Wood Betony, though each does so in subtly different ways. Lemon Balm calms flashes of anger and also helps when too much sun makes someone irritable. Skullcap brings blood flow from an overactive brain down to the abdomen. And Wood Betony anchors our spirit firmly in the solar plexus to protect us from outside influences and ground us in the here and now. But Motherwort is the mint that is most grounding to the heart.

ANGELICA (Angelica archangelica)
Losing love or losing a friend can sometimes leave you with an empty, hollow feeling inside.

The late Stephen Buhner, a dear friend whose death I am mourning, was the first to speak of Angelica, with her hollow stem, as a medicine for those whose spirits feel hollowed out inside, especially when they feel a hollowness in the chest. Matthew Wood speaks of Angelica as a medicine for those who want to pray but cannot muster a prayer. Both of these indications make me think of how some Northern peoples view Angelica’s hollow stem as a passage between the earth and the heavens. To me, the warm scent of Angelica, especially when rising as steam from hot stones or as incense smoke, invites spirit to come in and fill up the empty places heartbreak and grief leave behind.

The key in working with all of these plants, is to remember that they are not just medicines in a tincture bottle or a teacup, they are living beings, and they are our kin. The deepest healing that plants can offer a broken heart is the medicine of connection, the reminder that we are never truly alone. The love of the plants and the love of the Earth are unconditional. They are here for us in good times and bad.

If you are feeling the keen pain of heartbreak, Herbs for Death, Dying, and Grief may have some of what you are looking for. Though the main focus is on death, which we know comes in many forms throughout life, this class also discusses herbs to soothe a grieving heart and for dreaming.
The information provided in this digital content is not medical advice, nor should it be taken or applied as a replacement for medical advice. Matthew Wood, the Matthew Wood Institute of Herbalism, ETS Productions, and their employees, guests, and affiliates assume no liability for the application of the information discussed.