It was once said, “A more valuable plant is not found within the whole range of the herbal pharmacopoeia.” —Dr. O.P. Borwan, 1875
Ever since I learned of the vervain plant, a well-respected herb infamous for more than 3,000 years throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, I have been in awe of its wide variety of medicinal uses. I first learned of this herb at a United Plant Saver’s conference while on a walk with Jim McDonald, a Michigan herbalist. Since that herb walk, vervain has shown up in my life on many occasions, including in talks during herb walks, within the pages of books I read, at internships and from teachers including Jim McDonald, 7Song and Lise Wolff. But before going over what I’ve learned from my herbal teachers about vervain, here is some history on this striking plant.
This striking plant has a history rich in lore and medicinal uses.
What's In A Name?
Vervain has almost as many names as it does uses. Some of the most intriguing ones include holy wort, trombhad, herb of grace, enchanter's plant, Indian and wild hyssop, turkey grass, and Juno’s tears. The Druids historically held vervain, as well as mistletoe, in such high regard that it was referred to as “the Herb (Yn Lus),” and the “Chief Herb (Yn Ard Lus).” The name vervain comes from the Celtic “ferfaen, from fer (to drive away), and faen (a stone)”, hinting at its most common folk use. The most commonly used varieties include blue vervain (Verbena hastata), white vervain (Verbena urticifolia) and hoary vervain (Verbena stricta). Being naturalized throughout parts of Asia, Africa, and the majority of North American and Europe, it revels in fields, thickets and dry abandoned areas. Growing up to 4 feet tall, this herb possesses opposite, lance-shaped hairy leaves with pencil-like stalks and lilac-colored flowers. If you're harvesting vervain, collect it right when it flowers.
Ancient Vervain Uses
Throughout history, blue and white vervain have been used quite interchangeably as magical herbs of “purifications, visions and love potions”. When paired with St. John’s wort, vervain was believed to keep one safe from being seduced by evil. As a favorite herb of Hippocrates, vervain, along with red clover, was also believed to be a “cure all …[as well as] God’s gift to man.” It was “favoured [in] the settling of disputes” by the Druids, and used to inspire creativity. In mainland-Europe, Hildegard of Bingen Germany stated that vervain, or “ysena [is] more cold than warm. Let whoever suffers rotten flesh, from ulcers or from worms…place [the tea of vervain] on top of the linen until the putridness has drawn out.” Lastly, an interesting point from a Native American herbalism book, vervain was traditionally used as a remedy for poke, which even in small doses can be quite poisonous. I find this ironic as vervain is a natural emetic, and poke's personality is very lazy—such the opposite of vervain.
Modern Vervain Uses
Now I will briefly explain its modern uses and explain who specifically can benefit the most from this herb. Vervain is an astringent, diuretic, alterative, emetic, antispasmodic, nervine and diaphoretic. Internally, this herb is phenomenal at reducing any stress-related ailment, from tension headaches and migraines to IBS and insomnia. Externally, vervain makes an excellent eyewash for tired, inflamed eyes (in tea form), especially when combined with borage, chamomile, eyebright and lady’s mantle. It also works well in homemade mouthwash for treating infected gums, and sore mouths and throats, and in poultices for skin ulcers and wounds.
Here is a recipe I like for Nursing Tea: Combine 1 quart of water with 1 teaspoon of vitex berries, 1 teaspoon blessed thistle leaves, 1/2 teaspoon vervain leaves, 1/2 teaspoon nettle leaves, 1/4 teaspoon fenugreek seeds, and 1/4 teaspoon anise seeds; steep for 20 minutes; drink 1 to 3 cups a day.
Freelance writer, community herbalist and medicine maker, Jennifer Heinzel hails from the cold city of Minneapolis, Minnesota. Jennifer is an avid writer, especially for anything folklore or myth-related to herbalism. She has written for the Chequamegon co-op, the United Plant Savers' journal, and the NorthPoint Health & Wellness center. Visit Thymes Ancient Remedies to read more from Jennifer.